I know I promised that my next few posts would just be bubbling with content from the recent conference I went to, and it might seem that I am diverging from that commitment. However, your trust means a lot, so I have every intention of connecting the conference stuff to today's post. Like a lot of stories, sometimes you need to hang in there for the payoff.
Simply put, empathy is the effort to feel something from someone else's perspective. Not actually replacing that person's role, but walking in their shoes as it were, and seeing the world through their eyes and with their heart. When emotional situations emerge, a natural response is for us to internalize and relate it to ourselves. Being able to empathize, however, gives a new meaning to the situation we experience, and an insight we may have never had if we remained in our own shoes. This author, connecting to this loss through another character instead of through their own experience, gives added dimension to an already-intense situation.
So, how does the conference get involved in all this? Well, probably the best panel we had was one on character development. Often, supporting characters can come off as flat or as merely means to an end because we keep them in the frame of their purpose regarding the main character. In particular, this is the curse of antagonists, who often seem like one-dimensional obstacles rather than actual people with motives and intentions. This conference section offered up a simple cure to avoid this trap - empathy.
The best cure for the flat character is one I have mentioned in this post before. I call it walking in their skin. If I have a supporting character that doesn't seem very deep or filled-in, I start up a new document and start writing character sketches from that character's perspective. Simple things at first - that character goes to the store. How does their mind operate with that task? Do they march straight through or look around for a while? Do they interact with others? Is this a comfortable experience or an annoying chore? I look at the world from their eyes, and see how things mind look different. I keep on doing these sketches until I know that character from the inside, then I go back to my main story. At that point, their scenes can't help but to improve.
Particularly for emotionally charged situations, try writing about it from the perspective of another person - a spouse, like the author in my group did, a parent, a child, a pet - anyone who has a separate view than yours. As you see the world differently, you see more of it, and it will show in your writing. And, of course, your readers will pick up on it whether they realize it or not.
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