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Writing, Empathy and the Author
Writing, Empathy and the Author

Writing, Empathy and the Author

apemannAndy (Formerly Apemann)

I contribute to another writer's website and wrote the following in response to many of the comments that were left on my works:

I have been somewhat bemused by some of the comments left on some of my recently submitted poems and stories. Why? Because there seems to be an assumption that I am writing from an autobiographical standpoint. I am not. It is very flattering to see that the realism of my works engenders this impression, but it is a false impression. I believe that what readers are reacting to is my empathy with my characters.

As a survivor of childhood abuse I do feel a certain ‘kinship’ with my troubled characters; I can understand why the girl in my story Choices is so angry at her mother’s complicity with her father’s abuse of her and her mother. In my case it was my father’s ‘blindness’ to what was going on under his nose that made me angry.

Similarly, the girl in my story In the Dark is drawn from my own experiences of being isolated from my siblings for days and weeks by being shut away in my bedroom and forbidden to turn on the light when it got dark. But that is where the similarities end.

One very obvious difference between me and the characters in those stories is that I am not – nor have I ever been – a girl. However, by making those characters girls rather than boys I believe that they trigger a stronger emotional reaction in readers. There seems to be something inherently more obscene in having a young girl the victim than a young boy, which is not to in any way denigrate the abuse suffered by boys. In some ways the abuse inflicted on young boys can be even more horrific, I am aware of that.

We are, though, part of a society that still champions little girls as ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’; when that view is directly challenged by a story – truth or fiction – of a little girl not being afforded that idealistic view, the shock is gut-wrenching. It is that blow to the solar plexus that I aim for in my stories. It is calculated and deliberate.

I tend to write from a female perspective quite often, which, again, is not accidental. In the twenty-first century, women still get a rough deal from society on the whole. I have strong empathy with the feelings of unfairness and injustice that surround certain women’s issues. Again, drawing on my own experiences of being blamed for things I was not responsible for, I know how it feels to not be taken seriously and to be dismissed as unimportant. It is those feelings that I try to get across in my writing to make not just my characters themselves believable, but also what they think and feel believable. It gives them sense of depth and humanity which, I think, is what readers respond to.

Much of what write is based on the classic ‘what if’ premise: what if a weakling of a young lad was the difference between his father living or dying? What if someone you cared about married badly? What if a young wife dies tragically young? What if a spoilt young girl cares about nothing but her birthday party whilst other kids suffer all manner of ills? What if we are all puppets? What if a noisy young couple move into the neighbourhood? Those two words are the stepping-off point for much of my writing.

I cannot and do not know how my characters will feel for sure: I do, though, have an inkling of what they might say or do or think based on whichever situation or circumstance I create for them because that is, perhaps, how I would respond or react. Adam Gurney (The Trials of Adam Gurney) surprises himself with his innovative thinking yet still remains the frightened child he really is. Janie has a wonderful birthday party and remains oblivious to the suffering of other kids her age. The girl in Choices has had to wait until she has matured to the point that she can strike out on her own, where the girl in the story In the Dark doesn’t know her fate. Chances are it won’t be pleasant. By making her human and real there is an emotional connection that triggers a range of reactions, from anger to horror to outright fury.

The mother in Blood Part 1 is an unsympathetic character from the outset, and becomes less so through the course of the series, yet she is essentially a peripheral character! Leaving her nameless gives her role more credence and weight than it would otherwise have gained. She is my version of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’ in those Spaghetti Westerns of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, only less heroic.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines empathy as "the power of identifying… with a person or object of contemplation". It is this quality I try to bring to my writing; to my characters, be they larger characters in a story or sketchy ones in a poem. In each I try to imbue a sense of someone the reader knows, either as a type or as an individual. To me and my writing the two are totally inclusive: without empathy I cannot write the stuff I write, and I would not be the writer I am if I was not empathic. If that comes across as too-real-to-be-made-up then I have done my job well. I can ask for nothing more nor ask for any bigger compliment.


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About The Author
Andy (Formerly Apemann)
About This Story
7 Apr, 2016
Read Time
4 mins
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