Photo of famous characters from tv shows, books, and movies like Winnie the Pooh and Shrek that foster empathy

Build Your Empathy to Improve Your Characters

I don’t go on vacation expecting to meet a literary hero, but that’s exactly what happened.

On July 6, I was deleting advertising messages from my inbox when I saw an email alert.

Jeannette Walls was coming to town on July 8th to discuss her historical fiction novel, Hang the Moon about a bootlegger named Sallie Kincaid who runs whiskey during prohibition.

Two days later, I was in the audience, getting an education on empathy.

If you aren’t familiar with Jeannette, she’s the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle. I first heard about her memoir while watching the Oprah Winfrey Show not long after her memoir’s release. Her comments to Oprah about telling the truth struck a chord. Since then, I’ve read her memoir five times and taught it in classes.

Jeannette was charismatic, humble, and filled with wisdom for the writers in the crowd.

She said it took seventeen drafts, seven years, and hours of research to complete this book. The first was “fast and sloppy.” Subsequent drafts were about truly understanding who Sallie was and how she changed within a world that didn’t believe she had much right to be there.

Jeannette said, “Fiction is about empathy.” It’s the first rule of character development. Empathy requires you to understand your main character’s life and needs so well, they feel like your own. “First you research your life, then you talk to other people.” And if you’re writing historical fiction, you read, read, read everything you can about that time period—even advertisements about fly paper.

I would argue that creative nonfiction is about empathy too, though the first character you must empathize with is yourself.

Jeannette excels at empathy-based character development for three reasons:

  • Specificity: Jeannette is a master scene writer who immerses you in a world, then takes you on a journey. Along the way, she has you inhabit her characters’ lives rather than just telling us about them.
  • Curiosity: She shows her characters having emotions but refrains from judgment. She leaves the opinions to you. Puzzling through your feelings about the people on the page builds a relationship with them.
  • Compassion: While some characters are deeply flawed, none are one sided. “Characters who are all good or all bad aren’t that interesting,” she said. “We tell our stories to learn from one another.” To do this well, we must see all facets of who our characters are.

While everyone was hungry to read Hang the Moon, fans of The Glass Castle packed the room. Many shared how her memoir had touched them.

A librarian talked about how The Glass Castle mended mother/daughter relationships. A teacher spoke of the book’s effect on her students. Then she handed the mike to one of those students.

Tears welled behind the young woman’s glasses as she leaned against her teacher. “Your book spoke to me, because I’ve been through some hard things.” She was maybe fifteen and pale with porcelain skin and the kind of smile hard living requires.

I felt my eyes fill as I remembered being her, and as I held space for what I now know: things we’ve been through don’t always live in the past tense. I could feel the ache of those around me who also carried this knowledge.

Time suspended itself. For a few minutes, we were simply with this young woman and all she’d been through.

Bearing witness is the sacred act of seeing someone without needing to fix or change them. It’s the most potent form of empathy we can offer.

As we silently held space for this young woman, Jeannette’s words echoed in my head. Fiction writing is an act of empathy. When we get it right, readers use it as a beacon that leads them back to their wholeness.

Stories have always been my salvation. Each one serves as both mirror and flashlight, first illuminating the pieces of my experience I’ve hidden, then reflecting my story back to me—only this time with the promise of a way out.

Writing contains an alchemy that transforms us at a cellular level. I’m blessed to teach this work and to watch readers and writers experience this magic. But the rejection-filled path toward publication can make you question the effort. That’s why events like this are so important.

That young woman reminded me why I do this. Then Jeannette signed my book and hugged me like an old friend. Now, I humbly remind myself that as a writer I have two roles: mirror and flashlight, nothing more.

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