I recently read Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” His best advice is that people should seek first to understand, then to be understood. In other words, we need to empathize with those we deal with personally and professionally. This can be difficult, and when the other person makes little attempt to understand where we are coming from it can be hurtful and frustrating.
For a writer, the ability to empathize is critical. Writers have to create characters that readers can empathize with, and to do so we have to put ourselves in the character’s shoes and think hard about what it would be like to be them. How would they feel under the circumstances the story throws at them? What thoughts would go through their minds? How would they react to the situations and people they are dealing with?
Empathy can have a downside. I have a hard time with books and movies in which horrifying, traumatic things happen to the characters. Yep, I’m an emotional wimp. I don’t like to see people suffer. Besides, I don’t think a story has to be traumatic to be meaningful.
Empathy can be a lot of fun, though, too. My favorite writers create characters with whom I gladly empathize through their trials and tribulations because I know there will be a wonderful emotional payoff at the end. I enjoy getting into the head of IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway, the star of my Death & Taxes series. Through her, I get to be 27 again and have a kick-ass job where I carry a gun, work alongside a bad-ass bad boy, and take down crooks. So much fun! Tara also has an active sex life. Hey, if you’re going to empathize with your character, you might as well treat yourself to a good time, right? And it’s rewarding to empathize with a character whose ultimate goal is truth and justice, even if the means she uses to achieve those goals are less than exemplary.
It’s perhaps easiest to empathize with characters who are like us. A character from TV that I empathize with is Claire from Modern Family. She busts her butt to take care of a family that takes her for granted. She’s treated as if she has a hair-trigger temper when, in my opinion, she’s justifiably frustrated that someone throws a monkey wrench into her carefully made plans. I can soooo relate to that! I also empathize with Frankie from The Middle. She’s muddling through, doing her best but still falling short. There are only so many hours in a day, after all! Her house is a mess, sometimes she’s a mess, too, but in the end her children know she loves them and the important things get taken care of even if the laundry doesn’t.
What characters from books, television, or movies do you most empathize with? Are they like you or different? What made you feel empathy with the character? We’d love to hear your thoughts! One person who posts a comment today will win a copy of either Death, Taxes, and a French Manicure or Death, Taxes, and a Skinny No-Whip Latte (winner’s choice). The winner will be posted around 9:00 PM central time.