4. Send your empathy muscle to the gym.

Posted by on Apr 2, 2017 in Articles, How to write | Comments Off on 4. Send your empathy muscle to the gym.

#4. How to write your best selling novel, by a best selling author

Empathy, having it, gives us the ability to interpret other people’s feelings. Once we empathize, then we can sympathize – respond, essentially, because we know how they feel.

With empathy, we can walk in some else’s shoes. Great advertising is all about empathy. A very clever guy I used to work for, back when I was an impressionable youngster in advertising, created a famous campaign for cat food. It showed the cat happily at its bowl, munching on the product, when a bird flew up, perched on the bowl’s rim and fluttered its wings provocatively. But the cat preferred the client’s brand and continued to eat undistracted, ignoring the bird. (Gosh, that must be some tasty cat food, right?) The announcer then said, “Brand X. If it could run, cats would chase it”. This ad won a lot of awards that year and I personally thought it was a benchmark of excellence I would never reach.

Quite incredibly though, this cat food brand didn’t sell and the ad was quietly withdrawn from the airwaves. Subsequent research revealed that people don’t think of their cats as cats, but rather as people. They personify the crap out of them and so depicting a cat behaving as a cat, rather than as an indulged and loved human (the way most cat food ads depict felines these days, incidentally), was never going to work against the target audience. Basically, the ad did a great job of empathizing with cats, but a shitty job of empathizing with cat owners, the ones who part with the cash. (Interesting fact, which could be urban myth, but I wholeheartedly buy it: if you die at home alone with your pet cat, it will happy chew your face off to survive if it can’t get out. A pet dog, however, will die of starvation at your feet. I got nothing against cats. Just sayin’…)

“To perceive is to suffer.”

– Aristotle

Where was I? Right, empathy. Empathy is to the writer what a spirit level is to a builder. It’s very difficult to construct a story that won’t fall over without it; an essential tool of the trade, and so forth. Applying this specifically to the characters in your novel, the reader has to be able to empathize with them, along with their motives and motivations, for them to be viewed as anything other than store dummies. It’s also critical how your characters empathize with others. If engagement is what you’re after (and that has to be your primary task if you’re a writer who wants their story read), then readers have to be able to recognize the emotions of your character.

That means, as a writer, you have to be empathetic towards both your characters and your readers and weave bonds of empathy between the two. Sounds hard, but isn’t. Unless you’re autistic or sociopathic, you empathize all day long with the people around you without being conscious of it. It’s just as a writer you have to be particularly conscious of it. A simple empathy exercise: (and staying with the cat theme) next time you see a missing cat poster on a power pole in your neighborhood, try to feel the emotions of the family who put the poster up, the feeling of the cat as it finally struck out for freedom, the feelings of the kids who miss the cat and wonder why it ran off, and the feelings of the soccer mum who accidentally hit the cat with the SUV and bounced it, dead, into some bushes by the road. A lot of opportunities to empathize in that little paragraph.

Leaving cats behind, as you write your story keep asking yourself “how would I feel about that?” Whatever the situations are that envelop your characters, try to build the answers into your character’s thoughts, deeds and actions. This doesn’t mean that your characters can’t do totally bizarre things. They can, as long as they behave in a consistently bizarre way and their bizarre motivations and actions also remain consistent.


#5. My own personal “11 secret herbs and spices” of writing. (Except I only have 5).