Empathy and Authenticity

I work in an environment where people fear for the lives of their children. 

Needless to say, a job where people genuinely (and sometimes rightly) are afraid for the lives and well-being of their children, can sometimes be emotionally exhausting. It also allows me to see the full spectrum of human response to situations of unparalleled intensity. As you might imagine, that can come in handy when writing fiction, and since it might also come in handy for the three people who read this blog, I’m going to share a detail-stripped, time-aged story about a young mother.

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I worked a night shift a while back, starting at 7pm and ending sometime in the vicinity of 8am, during which a particular parent called me on the phone every three hours to yell at me about something. And I mean yelling. Angry, aggressive, and sometimes downright mean yelling, with not too subtle implications that I was stupid and bad at my job.  

This is not the woman in question. No hair was harmed in the making of this story.

The thing she was yelling about? Her premie wasn’t strong enough to eat all his formula by bottle. In other words, it was nothing anybody (including the baby, me, the doctors, or the mom) had a lick of control over. Premies are small and weak, without the musculature and stamina they need to complete complicated tasks like eating. It just takes time, and there’s nothing to be done about it but have a little patience and keep on doing the things that will support the baby to get stronger.

Now, I could have taken her comments personally, gotten angry, acted passive aggressively, or used my authority to have her put into a position of trouble. Instead, I chose to empathize with her. To realize that she was still a child herself, with few coping skills, no support system, and little experience with the world. To understand that she was anxious about her child and that his failure to eat was making her feel like an incompetent mother, which likely compounded feelings of guilt that she didn’t carry him to term to start with. In other words, I chose to care about her and her situation. 

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My writing pals often say to me that their characters do things that don’t make sense, or that they react in unexpected ways. This, I believe, is an expression of creativity. It is also a symptom of our unconscious understanding that people are much, much more complex than their actions may reveal on the surface. Motivation is an underlying process that drives our actions and character actions, but it helps to remember that not every motivation is going to be transparent to the other characters. What looks to one person like a display of anger might actually be an expression of fear. It isn’t logical, but it is authentic.

People misinterpret each other’s motivations and goals all the damned time.

Really. It’s a wonder we accomplish anything.

This is one of those things I try to remember when writing, because characters who always guess right about each other, or who display too much empathy (or too little) come off as authorial insertions. They seem to dance to strings rather than genuine motivations. On the other hand, creating that sense of empathy within a reader is the foundation for emotional connection. This is why motivation must be crystal clear to the author, so that we can share it with the reader. Empathy is what makes us care about the characters and the story. As with most of the emotions in a really well written story, this is a battle for the subtext, but it is one well worth fighting, in my (not so) humble opine.

How do you create empathy for your characters among readers, while still making them authentic?

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