Writing exercise for building empathy, Part 2

A month or so ago, I published a post about how writers — and everyone else — could benefit from building empathy. I’d like to share another strategy about which I’ve gotten a positive feedback about. This exercise in particular will build you as a writer, and as a person.

For this exercise you can do one of two things:

  1. Write a short personal essay about a person you have a grudge against. Maybe they hurt you, maybe you competed against them and lost…it doesn’t matter the cause. You resent them and haven’t let it go.
  2. Find a page of your fictional WIP (work in progress) where your main character harbors a grudge against another character.

Number one is very emotionally draining, so if you’re not ready to reach for a box of tissues, just start with number two. You could also write the real-life events from the third person, as if they happened to a friend, not to you yourself. Many people feel that adding this extra layer of “padding” can grant a small measure of objectivity and cushion the blow for the next steps.

Read the writing sample through. Feel the anger, the frustration, the resentment.

Take a deep breath, then imagine you are the “villain” in this scenario. In case #1, you are the person you are angry with. In case #2, you are the enemy of your main character.

Ask yourself, who do they think of as the victim in this scenario? What do they think of their opponent? What do they think of themselves? Are they aware of the resentment or oblivious to it? If aware, how do they feel about it — are they too harboring a grudge, or are they unhappy about the situation, yet unsure as to how to make amends? Do they feel their actions were justified? Misunderstood?

Now, rewrite the essay or scene from their point of view.

When I’ve done this with real-life scenarios, I often discover that I am not the innocent party that I previously believed myself to be. And my “enemy” is not as horrible as I made him or her out to be. I’ve found myself crying. Sometimes, a solution will appear, a way to remedy the breach. Other times, I simply find myself able to let go of negative emotions that were weighing myself down.

In fiction, I find that after this exercise, I am better able to construct a main character with realistic flaws. The scenes between the two characters also become more dynamic.

Have you tried either exercise? If so, tell us what you thought in the comments.

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