How empathy drives our best creative work
There are actually three kinds of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy. Let’s start with a little darkness, because hey, wouldn’t that make for a cooler opening?
Cognitive empathy is like Theory of Mind. You can imagine what it’s like to be in another person’s POV. Their thoughts, feelings, needs. Sociopaths often have this but not the other two kinds. We’ve all seen creative geniuses who otherwise are awful with people, or writers who write what they like but never consider the impact of their work on others.
Emotional empathy is your ability to share the other person’s emotional experience. The risk with this one is that if you don’t practice healthy boundaries, the other person’s emotions are like the flu, and you don’t have an immune system (boundaries).
Compassionate empathy is understanding someone’s feelings and needs, and then taking action to help. The risk with this is that if you don’t have the other two, you’ve probably got a hero complex with no clue how to actually help anyone. Narcissists often have compassionate without emotional empathy, as evidenced by their deep desire to love and protect people by forcing them to be carbon copies of themselves. People with Aspergers tend to have little cognitive empathy, but high emotional and compassionate.
Now let’s look at the positive sides of those and how it impacts what we write.
Cognitive empathy is essential to writing beyond the classic Mary Sue story. Which is not to say that you couldn’t get away with writing a story populated by carbon copies of yourself (Malkovich?), but the world will almost by default be less rich for its lack of complex, diverse characters. Think about the stories you’ve experienced where each character felt like a unique individual. Cognitive empathy is essential to creating that kind of rich world.
Emotional empathy is your ability to share an emotional experience with another person. Without it, you may as well be writing an instruction manual. But with it, you understand not just how vital your emotional experience is to the story, you know how to be vulnerable and share that with another person (your reader).
Compassionate empathy is what drives you not just to understand the rational and emotional experience of another but to authentically CARE about that person’s well-being. It’s this type of empathy that makes readers love your characters. It’s this type of empathy that shows why your MC is and always will be worthy, no matter how much they mess up. This is the true essence of the Pet the Dog moment rule taught in creative writing. Your character can be the filthiest, loudest-mouthed crook in the world, but they still stop in the middle of their escape from robbing a bank to help a dog in the middle of the road.
If you know you struggle with a kind of empathy in your personal life, you can be 100% certain that you will struggle to integrate that component into your writing.
And I don’t know about you, but I really struggled for a long time with emotional empathy. I cared about people, but I didn’t know how to connect with them, or how to share an experience beyond “information.” And boy did it show in my old writings that should probably be burned before anyone finds them.
I had a ton of tortured heroes who wanted to help but mostly just tried to stay invisible and safe. Really polite and I guess kind, though can you really be kind if you can’t fully experience the cognitive and emotional experience of another person? You’re just kind of flailing and hoping at that point.
Now I write about real relationships. I write about the deeply flawed but incredibly fulfilling connections that make up the best parts of our lives. I write about people discovering themselves. I write about being vulnerable.
I think back about the books I love to this day, and they’re almost always the ones that made me feel and experience something with a character wholeheartedly. I didn’t care what mistakes the characters or the stories made because I was in fully and completely just to see what this brave thing could pull off.
I want you to give yourself to your writing like that. Use all three kinds of empathy not just to create an immersive experience for your potential readers, but for you to immerse yourself in the story fully and completely just to see what this brave thing (that’s you) can pull off.