reading a book

Why is empathy important for writers?

By BBC Maestro

Many of us will remember a story we read that kept us gripped to the pages. It may have been the captivating tale of star-crossed lovers, whose next meeting you yearned for, or the vicious behaviour of a villain towards the protagonist that left you feeling helpless. Whatever it was that had you gripped, was likely the careful work of an empathetic writer.

But what is empathy? And how can adopting it make a difference to your writing? In this article, we’ll explore why empathy is important for writers.

What is empathy?

Empathy is having the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Think of the well-versed expression, “to step in someone else’s shoes”. This articulates empathy perfectly. Imagine stepping out of your own body and into someone else’s, and feeling what it’s like to be them. What is it like living day to day as them? How would they react to different situations? These are all questions someone experiencing empathy for someone else may ask themselves.

Empathy researcher and psychologist Jamil Zaki, PhD, describes empathy as the “psychological ‘superglue’ that connects people and undergirds co-operation and kindness”. It helps us understand and navigate our relationships with others. 

Why is empathy important for a writer?

Some suggest empathetic people are well suited to creative careers – for example, as an artist or writer. For a writer, empathy is a great asset to have. Being able to get creative by stepping into the shoes of your characters (and readers!) to create a story that grips and excites readers is a vital part of a good story. As Malorie Blackman explains in her online writing course, “as a writer you need to have insight into the human condition”. Read on to understand why being empathetic can make you a better writer.

A person types on their laptop

Empathy makes your writing more believable

Adopting an empathetic approach in your writing is a great way to help portray your characters as authentically as possible. Whether you’re presenting a swashbuckling hero or a downright nasty villain, if you want to create convincing characters, it’s vital to understand how they see the world around them. This will impact everything from how they build relationships with others to how they respond to different events throughout your story.

In her BBC Maestro course, writer Malorie Blackman suggests that an effective way to do this is to “explore the world through your character via all of their senses”. 

Imagine your character’s backstory – what experiences have shaped their life? What’s their favourite way to spend a weekend? Do they have a big circle of friends or are they lonesome? “Don’t be afraid to feel as your character feels,” says Malorie Blackman. Why not try taking inspiration from the people in your own life too? Is there anyone you can think of who’s had a particularly interesting journey?  

Considering the story of your characters is the first step to becoming a more empathetic writer. Once you know them inside out, you can craft their journey with confidence. When it comes to conjuring up your characters, why not take a look at our character bio template to help spark some ideas?

A person reads

Empathy helps build stronger connections with your readers

We all want our readers to be interested in our stories. The trick is to capture their attention and hold it, so they feel invested in your story at every twist and turn. Finding ways to connect with readers’ feelings and emotions is just the trick.

There’s a knack to crafting your words in order to make your readers feel a certain way – whether you want to tug on their heartstrings or make their skin crawl. Think about some of the memorable characters in stories you’ve read. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or JK Rowling’s Voldemort – readers remember their characters because they made us feel something. As Malorie puts it, “Voldemort is so scary that people are afraid to even say his name”. This is the result of a writer who crafts with empathy – and considers the reader’s journey as well as the characters. Consider the emotions you want your characters and your story to evoke in people. You can also think about how your story can stand out from other stories in the genre you’re in too.

A child reads

Empathetic writers create more empathetic readers

A growing body of research has found that people who read tend to better understand the feelings of others. As a writer, you have the power to inspire, provoke and challenge your readers. Your reader may have never experienced the situations that one of your main characters has. Or they may have dealt with the same situation in another way. Try crafting a variety of characters who have different experiences and perspectives that your readers can open their minds to in new ways, and may help them approach their own interactions with others differently. 

Dr Raymond Mar, professor of psychology at York University in Toronto studies how reading character-led stories creates more empathetic readers. “To understand stories, we have to understand characters, their motivations, interactions, reactions, and goals,” he says. “It’s possible that while understanding stories, we can improve our ability to understand real people in the real world at the same time.”

Hopefully you’re now feeling ready to incorporate an empathetic lens into your writing process. Whether you’re crafting stories for young adult fiction, comic books or children’s picture books, practice stepping into the minds of your characters and audience. It’ll no doubt make you a better storyteller. 

Learn more about writing

Join literary icon, Malorie Blackman, as she explores the realm of young adult fiction. Along the way, you’ll learn how to captivate young audiences at every page turn, create characters with depth and substance, and how to overcome the ever-frustrating writer’s block. If that’s not enough, you’ll get a glimpse at everything else she’s learnt across her 30-year career too.

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