• “Revisioning” Empathy

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 3 comments

    Don't be the writer equivalent of this guy.

    Revisions. Funny how the word looks less nasty when you read it as “re-visions.” Okay, revisions aren’t nasty in the end, but they make me feel like a doctor operating on a gangrene patient using 19th-century surgical methods. While I’m amputating and holding my breath so I don’t throw up from the smell, I hope that my short story doesn’t just survive. I want it to thrive.

    Okay, done with the extended metaphor. I just attended the second half of a short story workshop Saturday, and while I’m still happy with my prose—diction, syntax, etc.—I worry. Mostly about whether or not I can get a reader to feel empathy for my characters. If only it were as easy as throwing in a dash of cumin to a dish. Empathy is a quality that a lot of people aren’t preoccupied with in the first place (and if you don’t believe me, try working in food service). How does a writer facilitate empathy for her characters? I don’t have a clear answer for that, but I have a couple ideas.

    It’s not magic, but it sure feels that way when you meet a character who inspires emotion. When you’re in that character’s head and you think Wow, I’ve felt exactly that way before! or Oh shit! How’s he going to get out of that one?!, you know the writer did his (or her or whatever) most important job. I see it as literary transcendence. That’s why it’s helpful to think of the literature you’ve read and what made a particular character real to you.

    For instance, if I had to pick a favorite novel, it would be Crime and Punishment simply because of Raskolnikov. I’ve never murdered anyone or lived in extreme poverty, but his guilt and paranoia rubbed off on me as I read. I felt for him. I would put the book down and feel like I just emerged from a second life, so different from my own, that both thrilled and terrified me. Raskolnikov’s mental trip into the throes of insanity never sounded contrived because the narrator showed what was going on in Raskolnikov’s mind.

    Also, I enjoy watching movies and well-made TV shows for inspiration. Seeing a story unfold, characters’ ticks and quirks manifesting, their vulnerability made tangible—it makes the writing wheels in my head spin. That being said, you’ll have to excuse me. I have to “watch my stories.” A little Breaking Bad to provoke the Muse.


    In addition to writing for WriteByNight’s blog, Jenna Cooper writes for BE Mag and a blog called FemThreads.  Aside from writing, Jenna served as an AmeriCorps Member from 2008-2010 and will start her M.S. in Information Studies in Fall 2012.  She graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas.


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    Ah yes, Breaking Bad is an excellent muse. Can there be a deeper, more compelling character than Walter White?

    David Duhr

    Justine has just started watching this show. I’m curious, too. Curious enough to get into it? Let us hope not.


    The two main characters are very well developed and the plot keeps me second-guessing. It’s similar to Dexter in some ways: a man has two lives, tries to hide it from his family, etc., but I found Breaking Bad a more believable show than Dexter. I can never get around the suggestion that suffering childhood trauma will turn you into a sociopath.

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