Saturday, February 24, 2018

Learning from Fiction Characters

The thought of how creating characters changed me didn’t occur to me for a long time. 

While writing I don't think about characters coming from my mind.  And as a writer, I have not consciously developed them from people I know. I thought it would be too embarrassing for me to have someone recognize themselves as one of my characters. Yet my characters have subtly changed me, something that went unnoticed.

Obviously in writing fiction, an author has to use characters to carry the story, so an author has to develop those characters in a believable manner. When I began writing I used books that broke down different human personality profiles and the characteristics of those personalities. I still often go back to using those templates. That said, while writing I still had to be my characters and determine how they would act in any particular situation. I also knew this would not necessarily be how I’d behave in that situation, so I had to think from the view of my character’s personality or imagine myself as him or her.

I’ve always been a people watcher, but after several novels, I, oddly, began to understand how those people were behaving, and also began to be more accepting of people and their behaviors and reactions. Of course, some people are so misaligned I would never make them a friend—but perhaps a villainous character. This awareness also made me warier than I used to be. 

I didn’t think a lot about this until I was asked to teach a college interpersonal communications class. While developing my class I was reading the textbook and came across a section on the difference between empathy and sympathy. We all show sympathy, or concern and compassion, for another person’s situation based on our own experience,  understanding, and viewpoint. Empathy differs. Empathy allows someone to put themselves in another person’s situation, literally to experience that person's viewpoint. Empathy includes understanding how they might think or feel. In other words, empathy allows someone to briefly become another person, to put themselves in the other person's shoes, providing an understanding of that person's dilemma or problem, or to feel their regret, grief, or other emotion. This expands the ability to communicate in a meaningful way with that person. Empathy allows a person to be less egocentric and increases their understanding of another person and to perhaps communicate with each person in a more caring manner.

All along my fiction writing has been developing my empathy through my characters, and I didn’t notice it. Did this all happen from writing? I doubt it, but it certainly magnified the ability. I think reading introduces empathy, too. That is a huge effect for characters to instill on anyone.

Please visit these authors and read their views on this subject:
Connie Vines
Skye Taylor 
A.J. Maguire
Marci Baun
Marie Laval
Judith Copek
Dr. Bob Rich
Rachael Kosinski

Fiona McGier 
Beverley Bateman


  1. I have a shelf of books from naming to archetypes to careers and more that I consulted more at the start but still go back to. I've also discovered you can add birth order to the mix which gives you all kinds of aspects of a character and how they relate to their siblings and the world. Great post.

  2. I didn't even know that there were books where you can get templates for characters! How interesting... I think being a writer helps develop empathy, even for the 'villains' in our stories. After all, we are always told that villains must have a motive for behaving the way they are, and that it is essential to grasp their motivations in order to make them more interesting and less caricatural.

  3. I really enjoyed how your characters subtly changed you, even your people watching. It gives me something to think about.

  4. You are spot on about needing to be in the Point of View of your characters. That is so important to decide what THEY would do, not what you would do. I like the part about empathy, because that is really the way we get into our character's heads. Great post.

  5. That's interesting. I never thought of how writing can train one to be more empathetic. I'm not sure how much that has changed me. LOL I'm stubborn and opinionated. At times, I'm judgmental, but not just of others. I have high expectations, primarily of myself.

    That being said, everyone starts with a clean slate. (Well, within reason. For instance, Hitler or someone like Kim Jong Il aren't going to get that chance.) Most of the time, my only expectation of someone is that I'm going to like them. It's up to them to prove me wrong. It happens, but more often, it doesn't.

    Thanks for organizing this.

  6. Very informative topic and post. I am too empathetic in real life--I must always toughen up my fictional characters.

  7. They have done studies about how readers become more empathetic as they read. So someone who never reads would have no idea of how other think and feel. But someone who reads a lot can picture themselves experiencing other people's lives. And as writers, I think we do this even more.

    Great post!