Thursday, June 2, 2011

Empathy and characterization..

A friend said to me today that she thought you needed empathy to be a good fiction-writer, because you need to get into your characters and feel what they feel, and if you're, say, a narcissist or very analytical and low on empathy, you probably can't feel for them

Of course, being a good fuzzy liberal, I agree, but I want to toss that out for consideration. What do you all think? Do you have to be able to "feel with your characters" to create good characters? 

Are there alternatives?  Like if you are basing a character on yourself or someone else, maybe you don't need empathy so much as an ability to deeply observe?

Also, there are really analytical people who can, I think, create characters without feeling them. I think Flaubert (Madame Bovary) might be one, not sure.  They're more like psychologists in that way. They analyze the situation and this character and what the traits might cause to happen, and how that might affect how the character behaves.

So... your thoughts?  Do we need empathy to create characters?  Or can we do that well if we're instead quite analytical? Is it likely that any of us are both?


Livia Blackburne said...

Hmm, I'm pretty analytical, so I approach character development analytically -- looking at other books and seeing how they portray emotions, get their messages across.

Jenny Brown said...

I wish I could say that I'm a deep font of empathy, but I'm not. So for me, creating character isn't so much about empathy as it is about bringing to life various strands of my own personality that I know very well, but don't get to express much in real life.

Because my real nature is a mass of contradictions, I also love creating characters who are straightforward embodiments of some relatively clear-cut trait. My characters, unlike myself, are able to act decisively and consistently. I trot out the analysis only after I've given them free rein, written down the messes they get themselves into, and have to somehow pull it back into a plot.

I also enjoy taking my inner conflicts, turning them into warring characters and watching the sparks fly.

For someone who has a more structured personality than I do and less inner conflict, that technique might not work. That kind of person might be the kind who sits quietly noting all the little details of the behavior of those around them and then using them to great effect.

Julie Harrington said...

I think you do have to create some kind of caring between reader and character in a story. There are some great characters I can think of that do not-so-nice things but because there's something admirable about them (a loyalty, a sense of honor, some kind of code that makes sense), you can still empathize with them and root for them. If you don't have that... if you have a character that you feel nothing for... how can you care if s/he succeeds or fails, wins or loses, lives or dies? Something has to pull you through that story with the character (heck, even truly great villains are, imo, people you can empathize with on some level).


Livia Blackburne said...

Hehe, so I just wrote a post today. If you want to see how a cold, logical, scientist thinks about writing emotion

Edittorrent said...

LOL, Livia!

Jenny, that's a good thought, using characters to embody part of the writer's own personality. Have you gotten insights into yourself by creating characters?

Juliette Wade said...

I feel for my characters more often than not, even if they aren't point of view characters. Sometimes it makes it hard for me to keep writing, if they're suffering particularly, but I find it helps the end result.

Corrie said...

My immediate reaction was, "Heck no! Lots of people analyze their way to good characters..." But then as I read the comments, I realized that I'm not one of them. I'm the more empathetic person who intuits their way to (hopefully) appealing and complex characters. I wonder how often we admire the opposite processes from our own?