Empathy and Character Development

My friend Anna Myers gave a great presentation at our last SCBWI OK schmooze here in Tulsa entitled “Secrets to Character Development”. Anna knows a little something about character. All of her 19 novels are character-driven. Before she starts a new book, her main characters come to her almost fully formed. When she sits down to write, she puts on some music with a strong connection to the story she wants to tell, becomes very quiet, almost meditative, and waits for her character to show up.

Then she forgets herself.

That’s the most important thing to remember about character development, according to Anna:

“You have to ditch yourself.”

I’ve seen Anna perform a few school visits, and when I say perform,  I mean Anna puts on the semblance of a wardrobe, takes just a beat to get into character, and then launches into a monologue. She becomes a character from one of her books in order to tell the kids about the story – a very effective, attention-getting technique.

Lose yourself and become your character.

Is anybody in there?

Anna added one caveat to that:

“You must first learn your craft. If you haven’t learned your craft, you’re wasting your time.”

She then pointed to me out of the group gathered and said that when she first met me, my writing was horrible (I nodded in agreement), but then I worked at it and worked at it and my writing improved. Now I’m on the cusp of success. (Feels like I’ve been here forever, but the publishing world sometimes moves slowly, requiring tenacity…and PATIENCE.)

Once you’ve done this, once you’ve learned your craft, you have to stop trying so hard.

Easier said than done?

Yes. But that also can be accomplished with practice. Lose the barriers between yourself and the child you used to be. After all, you can’t write from the perspective of a twelve year-old girl if you’re stuck in your forty-something mind.

This whole talk sparked a vivid memory for me.

I was working in Albany, New York, as a nanny for this lovely family. Both the husband and wife were eye surgeons. The wife, Anna, (I think I’m destined to be influenced by fabulous women named Anna) and I would often have interesting philosophical discussions. It is partly due to her that I learned to open up my empathy and see the world through others’ eyes. We were discussing child abuse for some reason, and let’s just say for the sake of argument that I’d been in close proximity to and witness of some ugly abuse in the past. During this discussion, I made a grand statement as I was apt to do back in my late teens, early twenties, and said something about how I couldn’t understand how anyone could hit a child. Ever.

I thought it was an easy position to support and I thought Anna would agree with me, one hundred percent. Instead she surprised me. In her way of disagreeing, she said, “You can’t? I can.”

Then she had me imagine that I was a single teenaged mother, stuck in a tiny, cramped apartment – day in and day out – with a howling baby that I had no skill in caring for. Imagine that I felt like my life was over. I’m sleep-deprived, hungry, have no coping skills, and no support system. And the baby won’t stop screaming. “Don’t you think at some point, you might just lose it and lash out?”

I was shocked. This was not the answer I’d expected. Then I thought about what she said. I could picture myself as this young girl and what it would be like to live her life. Maybe things were not so black and white.

I now find it easy to understand people’s motivations – what makes them tick – by using this same method of stepping into their shoes. I just need to work on stretching a little farther until I actually feel myself becoming them, becoming my characters, before I start to write. Almost there.

How about you? Do you channel your character effortlessly or do you struggle with characterization?

6 thoughts on “Empathy and Character Development

    1. Very true. Sometimes I’ve left myself so far behind, I don’t know who I am anymore. I write my name in my underwear for just such emergencies.

  1. Very good advice to follow. It’s how I work with certain characters of mine so well. I feel how they’ve lived what drives them, their fears and dreams until I can’t think for myself anymore. They become my life until their story is done. Or the day, whichever comes first. 😉

    1. And thanks for keeping me humble. If I ever get too big-headed, please remind me how much I used to suck at this. You are always inspiring.

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