The Art of Empathy

As readers, one of the, if not the, most compelling aspects of stories is the characters. This makes sense, as the beauty and power of storytelling comes in the empathy and company we receive while reading.

We connect with characters. We relate to them. We cheer them on or hope for their downfall. When characters are truly alive on the page, they evoke an emotional response not unlike those we have with the real people in our lives. 

Creating a character is like getting to know a new person. Sure, as a writer I am theoretically "in control" of this person. But I find, again and again, that creating a character is less an act of control, and more one of discovery. With fiction, we draw from people we know, whether or not we're even aware that this is what's happening. And one of the central people we draw upon is, of course, the self. 

That being said, many of my characters live lives completely alien to my own. There are thirteen main characters in total, with two central protagonists. There are over a hundred supporting characters in addition to these thirteen. Creating characters from different cultures and times demands hours upon hours of research. It demands stretching my imagination beyond the confines of my skin bag.

I grew up as a middle-class, white girl in middle-class, white Bozeman. Race and power structures weren't a part of daily conversation. I just lived my little life in the bubble that is the Gallatin Valley. Travel popped the bubble in my early 20s, as did reading more about racial conflicts--mainly colonialism and its ongoing ramifications.  

When I set out to write this book, I knew I wanted to create a diversity of characters. I wanted a woman who lived deep within the rainforest. I wanted a man who herded reindeer on the tundra. I wanted the central protagonist to be a young woman of mixed races who grew up working for her food. 

Needless to say, all of these experiences exist beyond my own. Yet I'm trying anyways to embody as much as humanly possible a person’s existence within circumstances fundamentally different than the ones I was born into. Some may argue that this kind of storytelling, where a man writes from a women's perspectives, or a white from a person of color's, is yet another form of cultural appropriation or even oppression.

Experience, though, has taught me the opposite. By aiming to embody the life of a slave, for example, I feel my capacity for empathy has expanded. I can't pretend to know I understand such an experience after writing about it for a few dozen pages. But I do think the simple process of trying to understand has allowed me to internalize on a deeper level the hardship of others--as well as appreciation for human resiliency.

It comes back to storytelling's power to connect. Our world has a lotta hurt in it right now. There sometimes feels to be more division, more you/me, and less us. I know I'll make mistakes, accidentally hurting others by seeking to better understand them. But I believe we still gotta try to understand.

Whether through reading, writing, or conversation, seeking opportunities to empathize with others helps me remember that we all experience pain, love, joy, and anger. It's called the human experience for a reason. Writing fiction is just one way I'm seeking to make sense of it.