Friday, February 26, 2010

Mental Empathy

Mental Empathy

I made up a new phrase or concept today. It’s called mental empathy. It sounds like mental telepathy and kind of works the same way only instead of knowing what someone else is thinking, I interpret what someone else is feeling. I use it when I’m writing. Do you? Maybe you do, but you’re unaware of it. Or maybe you’ve never made up a name for it like I have.

This is how it works. When I’m writing a scene I get into character and pretend that I’m the person I’m writing about. I put on their shoes and walk through their life and feel empathy for what they’re going through. I have the same back story and the same junk in my trunk. How does it feel? How do my past experiences impact my daily decisions, my motives and the way I perceive my world? Can my behavior be justified? How? Why? Would I want others to pity me or would I be too proud to complain? Would my junk make me a stronger person, more defensive, or bitter?

The way I get into character changes. Sometimes I have to close my eyes and listen to music and other times I need it real quiet. Maybe you need to get up off the sofa and walk through the motions. Do you have a limp? Are you old? Is it relevant to the story to mention how fast you move? What do you smell along the way? What do you hear? Do these affect your mood? Why? Maybe you have to dress up for the part. This can be productive, but be careful not to get too carried away—especially if you’re expecting dinner guests and your character is the opposite sex or a ballerina. If your guests arrive early they might think you’re, ah, quite a ‘different’ character.

After I feel empathy for my character’s predicament then I give her an out of the ordinary quirk—you know, a tic, a food fetish, something that makes her unique and identifiable—as an outlet for her feelings. For instance, a librarian who body builds, a cardiologist who smokes cigarettes or a little old grey-haired lady who loves to go to bloody boxing matches. You get the idea. It’s really fun to give them a quirk that’s not stereotypical. The unexpected is always refreshing.

So before you write, find some mental empathy and get into character. How many others do this, too? What are some of your character’s quirky behaviors that don’t fit personality stereotypes, but give your protagonist an outlet for the way she feels? Creative writers want to know.

Michelle Weidenbenner


  1. Yes! This is one of the reasons I love to write. I cry, laugh, learn and grow with my characters. Great post.

  2. Great post, Michelle. Thank you for reminding me of this. Sometimes it is difficult to put yourself in a painful state of mind, but it is necessary.

    I find that going to those places with my characters are sometimes stressful and by human nature I want to avoid them.

  3. I loved the bit about the old lady who likes bloody boxing matches - my 100 y/o aunt used to love watching boxing and later my son got a kick out of watching Worldwide Wrestling with her - (she didn't believe it was staged.) Anyway, I love to imagine what caused such quirkiness in her and in characters I create. Thanks for writing.