Thought of the Week: Get Inside Their Head

A couple of things this week have got me thinking about the concept of empathy, and what it takes to actually think along someone else’s lines. This is something of a two-pronged thought, for the idea of being able to put yourself in someone else’s place is dreadfully important, both in fictional writing and in real life.

I owe the inspiration for this post to The Random Fangirl for her excellent post on bullying. Apart from the naturally troubling nature of such a subject, there was something she said at the end that really got me thinking:

And I didn’t understand. And I still don’t understand. Didn’t these people have parents who taught them better? Couldn’t they see the pain they were causing? Didn’t they care?

Now, empathizing with bullies – particularly those who abuse, harm and kill – may not sound very tactful. But bear in mind – empathy is not sympathy. I couldn’t help but wonder if I could understand, if I could out myself in the place of a person who could willingly cause such harm.

The initial reaction to this is to rationalize. Something must have happened to them in their youth. They must have terrible home lives. Perhaps they genuinely are psychopathic, and unable to understand the feelings of others.

The trouble is, this is the very antithesis of empathy – there is no emotion here. It is incredibly difficult and painful to force yourself to feel what another person feels – all the more so when you find their actions abhorrent. Think for the moment about the phrase “in one’s shoes”; the implication is of switching places, literally standing where the other person is.

Imagine you witness a terrible beating; a person is punching, kicking, tearing and clawing at another – or perhaps you – and will not stop, despite all the screams, the tears, the pleas and the blood. Now, imagine you are the person delivering the abuse. Don’t make yourself stop – continue beating that poor person within an inch of their life.

Why are you doing this? What terrible events could possibly have led you to enact such violence upon another person? What would possess you to continue kicking them in the teeth even as you look upon the blood and the tears and the fear?

And here is the crux – the crossing point into genuine empathy. Answer those questions, genuinely and from the heart. Don’t stop until you uncover the reasons why you would do such a terrible thing. It won’t be easy – you’ll almost certainly be outraged, and unwilling to acknowledge that you could ever be capable of such injustice, because it is so far from the core of your being.

But what makes you different from that terrible person? We are all of the same ilk at birth. For me, the only reason I have to descend with such viciousness upon someone is pure, blinding hate. Then I am given to ask – what could cause such hate, especially if this person hasn’t wronged me? Perhaps I am convinced they have – I see something within them that I am desperately jealous of. Perhaps I am terrified of them, and see no other option – like killing a wasp so it won’t sting me. Then a new question follows this – why am I jealous?

This line of thought will lead you to a great many questions, each one burying down into a new depth of your own soul, into places you didn’t even know existed, or worse, wouldn’t accept. This has taught me that I would most certainly be capable of such despicable actions – in just the right scenario and given the right set of circumstances that led to it. It will be torture to acknowledge these terrible parts of you, but if you can face it, if you can admit to your own failings and insecurities, you might find yourself suddenly able to understand behaviors that you, yourself could never dream of doing.

And this very same line of thought applies to creating the characters in your story. No matter how brilliant and inventive your plot, the entire story hinges on the believability of your characters. Unfortunately, this is probably the hardest part of writing. Hands up who is 100% confident of the quality of your dialogue. What’s that? Only a few? I’m right there with you. Why is it so hard to write convincing dialogue?

For me, part of the reason for this is the instinct to write dialogue out as though I was speaking it myself. All of it. Imagine watching a movie where every character spoke in the same way! Come to think of it, this does happen in film – think of someone like Johnny Depp. For all his brilliance as an actor, a huge number of his films rely on him being Johnny Depp, whether he allows it to run rampant (Pirates of the Carribbean) or tones it down (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

It becomes all too easy when coming up with a storyline for the characters to become the vehicle to carry the plot to its end. The difficulty here is that it can lead to shallow characters, who speak only to further the plot, and act as needed, not as they must.

So I would encourage you to do the same soul-searching for your characters as you would for other, real people. Imagine yourself stabbing someone in the back, or having to decide between saving your by friend or your lover. Forget the plot you intended – it might not work! Follow your character, see what they get up to, and above all, imagine yourself in their place, and then ask yourself: why would I have done this? Your characters – and your readers – will thank you.

Your friends just might, as well.

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4 thoughts on “Thought of the Week: Get Inside Their Head

  1. Fascinating thoughts. I think we see the phrase too often of “he isn’t capable of such a thing”. My answer is always, “you’d be surprised what people are capable of.”

    • The hardest part of being a writer – and of being a person! – is the ability to think outside of yourself and your circumstances. It is all too easy to filter other people’s actions through your own personality and environment, and then be completely unable to understand their actions.

  2. Do you ever find yourself afraid to cross into true empathy? I hit a wall of emotion that I can’t control and back away, frustrated, yet fearful of how close I came to a particular fire.

    • It can be one of the hardest – and most terrifying – things to do, to search so deep within yourself. It means confronting parts of your soul that you would deny, and releasing thought and emotion that you may have had contained for many years. Allowing myself to align myself with another’s thoughts is indeed something I approach with caution, and it isn’t something I can simply slip into. In truth, this can sometimes be a detriment, as I end up unable to understand my wife’s frustration when I don’t do the dishes!

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