Nancy: The Problem with Empathy

malice-toward-noneOdds are, if you’re a creative person, you use your creative expression to process and make sense of the world around you. Knowingly or unknowingly, you also might be working out your personal issues in your work. This lesson came home to me a few weeks ago when I realized a struggle I was having with a character on the page was the very same struggle I was having with some real-world people in my life.

The character in question is an antagonist who did a terrible thing to the protagonist’s best friend years earlier, and that bad act comes back to haunt all of them in the present in the story. The real-life people I’ve referenced have recently stated beliefs and claimed values I didn’t realize they had, and I can’t make peace with it. In both cases, I’ve lost my capacity for empathy, and it’s a problem.

A few months ago, I posted about writing as our superpower. One of the things that makes that power so super and immutable and important is the ability to make readers walk in the shoes of the ‘other’. Stories take us places we’d never go in real life and introduce us to people we’d never meet otherwise. It’s especially important that an author empathize (and make the reader empathize) with the protagonist, even when she’s doing stupid or dangerous or infuriating things. Even when she’s weak or making bad choices or not living up to the challenges we’ve given her. Empathy allows us to go deep with the character to understand why she’s making these choices, because within the bounds of the story, we view the world and feel her feelings from her perspective. But what about the antagonist, especially if s/he goes into some seriously dark territory and does some truly heinous things? Continue reading