Archive for the ‘#empathy’ Tag

Writing Passion   7 comments

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

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So, I wrote this great article on this topic and accidentally swapped it for last week’s blog hop article. Have I mentioned I suck at math? Yeah, I do. And calendars, apparently.

Here’s a link to the original article, and I’m starting this one with the same intro. It was a great article in which I explore novels written by Artificial Intelligence. Yes, that’s really a thing, though neither a good one nor a real threat to legitimate novelists, in my opinion. It’s probably before its time, just like my article was. Great ideas are always jumping the gun.

Do I believe a writer can be a good writer if they don’t feel strong emotions?


Let’s define our terms first. A writer is someone who writes. An author is someone whose writing is published. A novelist is someone who writes fiction.

Do we assume the author who wrote Essentials of Modern Refrigeration (a book on my husband’s shelf in the family library) had strong emotions about refrigeration? How about the Chilton’s Manual on Ford Taurus 1995-2010?

Yes, writers produced those books and I’m thinking neither of them wept over any chapter of them, although I can assure you my husband has shed a few tears over that stupid California car in our driveway. Essentials of Modern Refrigeration didn’t even put me to sleep (I am my husband’s study partner, so I am obligated to read his technical manuals before he has to take licensing tests, so he can use me as his pre-tester). So, yes, a writer can write without feeling any emotion whatsoever about a topic that really doesn’t stir a lot of emotions. Trust me, absolutely nobody is passionate about how to change an oil filter on a 2005 Taurus.

I think the question we’re really asking is “Can someone be a novelist if they don’t feel emotion strongly?”

In my other article, I focused on the writer’s job to draw out the emotions of the reader regardless if we feel the emotion. Yeah, I’m not writing the same article, so go read it if you didn’t already.

I don’t think you need to have experienced the exact same emotion your character experiences in order to illicit an emotional response from your readers.

Writing about a hot mess doesn’t mean you have to be a hot mess yourself. I work a responsible job and have managed to stay married to the same man for more than 30 years. I raised two reasonably well-adjusted children (okay, one of them is a gypsy musician, but she’s a functional gypsy musician. I did MY job and she’s feeding herself, though the roof-over-her-head thing is still debatable). I would not define myself as a hot mess.

On the other hand, I’ve lived a life. I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it. I’ve been scared. I’ve faced loss. I’ve been angry. I’ve been lonely.

But I’ve never killed anyone in a drunk driving accident and I’m writing a character who has. How can I write that character if I’ve never felt that emotion? Well, maybe I can’t. We’ll see how the readers like it when it’s finally published.

I’ve never shot anyone in a war either and I don’t suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from an experience I’ve never had. Yet readers seem to think I do a believable job of portraying Shane because they read all the published books in the series and enough people have read the most recent book in Transformation Project that I’m guessing they were waiting for it to come out. Do you think they read the whole series (to this point) because I did a bad job of conveying emotions I’ve never experienced?

Probably not.

Though I’ve never actually experienced those emotions, I know people who have and I can sense by what they say and, more importantly, what they don’t or can’t say what some of their emotions are about those past events. My job as a writer is to give expression to the groanings of a soul that has no words for what has wounded it. And, yes, of course, I feel empathy for their emotional turmoil, but frankly, if my response was to weep, I’d not be able to interview them dispassionately and that would, I believe, harm my purpose. If you’re feeling too deeply, it’s hard to put the words on the paper. It’s hard to even understand the other person’s emotions. As an author, I need some distance from the character to write their pain effectively.

My job as a writer is to give expression to the groanings of a soul that has no words for what wounded it.

When I experience the emotion is when I read the manuscript as if I were a reader. And, if I get that tingling sensation in my soft pallet and my eyes start to gloss up, then I know I’ve done my job, because if it makes me cry, it’s going to illicit a strong response from the readers who encounter it for the first time.

I trained and worked as a journalist where you typically have less than 350 words to convey something to a reader – the horror of the car accident, the fear of the burning building, the passion of the City Councilman. In my day, journalists were supposed to report the news, not insinuate their opinion or feelings into the news, but certainly good reporters understand word choice and how to tug on a reader’s emotions without saying “Hey, cry about this.” My News Writing professor used to say “Be dispassionate to bring out the passion.”

I don’t have to feel the emotion strongly to write strong prose, but absolutely, I have to understand what elicits emotions in others in order to draw an emotional response from them. But there comes a place and time where writers must not manipulate the readers into feeling passionate about the character’s experience. Instead, we need to set up a scene where the reader follows the character through an emotional roller coaster and then provide an opportunity for the character to reflect on that now-past shattering event. While the character is unpacking their own response, the reader may process theirs as well, if they choose, and if I’ve done my job as a novelist correctly.

Buying Stock in Kleenex   6 comments

Have you ever made yourself cry (over what you did to a character) while writing a book?

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Oh, yes!

Easy answer. Of course, there is so much more to it than that.

Let’s start with the knowledge that I am not a particularly sentimental female. I didn’t cry at the end of Beaches, for example, though two of the men who came to that movie with their wives did get a little shiny-eyed. I was with them while the other two ladies were wetting tissues like crazy and the third guy announced a sudden need to warm up the car even though it wasn’t particularly cold outside.

I did cry during Schindler’s List – that scene where they destroyed the ghetto and the little girl in the red coat haunted my dreams for sometime after and I still choke up if I see it now. The inhumanity toward our fellow human beings can make me cry.

I’m pretty sure the last book (by another author) that made me cry was when Paula broke up with Jordan in Whatever Words You Want to Hear. It wasn’t that she broke up with him so much (he so absolutely deserved that!) as the knowledge that she knew his enablers were pulling back and he was going to flounder and probably end up shipwrecked. I felt what Paula felt at that moment and it touched me as deeply as it did her. So 25-30 years ago I didn’t cry at a sad movie (though I did feel the ethos), I cried over the inhumanity of humans, and I did cry over a girl-coming-of-age-while-loving-a-guy-who-wasn’t-going-to-come-of-age book. Just not a crier unless something hits me at an extremely deep level. In some ways, that’s good because I know when I’m writing a scene that if it makes me mist up, it’s going to make many women cry and some men feel it in their adam’s apple.

Generally, when I kill a character it is because he or she stops talking to me. I often characterize writing as characters show up in my head and want to tell me their story. If they stop, then what do I do with them? If I can send them on a long journey from which they never return, I do, but sometimes the answer is to kill them. And kind of like a friend who has decided they no longer want you as a friend, I sometimes mourn the loss of the relationship. It’s hard to let go of a great character. They’re a little like people in real life. Nobody wants a beloved friend to move away or die. They do, though. So in life, same in fiction. But that’s not a crying event for me because they broke off the relationship. I regret the end of my relationship with them, but if they don’t want to be my friend, I won’t waste tears on that. And in fiction, often that means the character’s death and that’s just a consequence of them not talking to me any longer.

Transformation Project is an apocalyptic series. It wouldn’t be realistic for my characters to not die during the apocalypse, but even living is painful. Being inside Shane’s head can be depressing. The guy has PTSD and he started the series with a gun in his mouth. That was literally the first scene I ever wrote for him and I kind of thought he might be one of those characters who died before he even got started. I didn’t cry during that because I remember being pissed off that this great character was not going to be around to share his story. He’s found a reason to stay alive in that his family and their town need his skills, but things aren’t getting easier. He’s had to kill people in sleepy Emmaus, his hometown that was too boring for him to stay in after high school, where he came in hopes of healing to emotional scars of war. He’s not getting to do that and the reality of what he and his fellow townspeople are living through touches his soul and it touches my soul. If I mist up while writing it and still feel like crying when I reread it, I know I’ve hit a sweet spot. The thing is, Shane rarely cries from his pain. He thinks he deserves it. And since all characters are really me, I often don’t cry while I am writing his viewpoint. It’s later, when I reread it that I go “Why am I so mean? I stink as a deity. I truly truly suck!” Or sometimes when I’m writing his family’s reaction to his actions, I feel what Jill or Cai feels for him and then I cry. If that sounds a little disassociative identity disorder, you don’t know many writers. All our characters are really us and so we can cry for what one character feels about another character who would never elicit tears from us.

I’ve brought this book up before because I truly plan to publish it someday … and that day is getting closer – What If Wasn’t – is a new adult novel about Peter, a young man who will have to deal with the consequences of his drunken actions killing someone he loves. That story is tough to write and I do cry. I hate that I’m putting a nice person with a drinking problem through all this pain. I want him to get well without hitting rock bottom and bouncing a few times. Peter hates it too. I can hear him saying “I will go to rehab. Just don’t make me do this.” Sadly, he has to because that’s the story he told me initially and so his fate is sealed. And, though the character does seem to want healing, I’m not necessarily going to give him a happy ending. Because, you know, that’s not how real life works

I let my son read a section a while ago. Keirnan is a sweet kid (well, 20) who isn’t afraid of feeling emotions and when he finished, his voice was all hoarse and he said “Wow, Mom! Readers are going to cry over this.”

There you go. I figure if I can make me – a not-sentimental person – cry while I’m writing it, readers ought to need to stock up on tissues. And the whole point of good literature is that it makes us feel at a deep visceral level.

Job done!

Posted May 6, 2019 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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