Saturday, May 2, 2015

Empathy in Writing

I once saw the late Jon Hassler give a talk (and if you haven't read Jon Hassler, I highly recommend him) where he talked about how important empathy is to the writer. 

I feel empathy is probably the most important quality a writer can have. It's what gives writing its passion, its honesty - it's what bridges the gap between technically well-structured sentences and passages that lift the soul or break the heart, make readers cry or give them new insights into the human condition. Writing with empathy is the best way to deliver those universal truths of great fiction directly to the reader's conscience. Great fiction has the ability to change the reader in fundamental ways - you've read something that's altered you in some way, right? And one of the most effective ways to achieve this is to write with empathy.

I'm not saying, however, to write about someone like Idi Amin as if he's really a swell guy. Because he obviously wasn't. But Forest Whitaker did an amazing job of playing Amin with empathy in The Last King of Scotland. In that movie, we saw Amin's charismatic side and could perhaps understand how there were those who admired him, while at the same time you could see how he was a just a bit of an ego-maniacal despot. Does that make sense? If Whitaker played Amin as just an evil old bastard, the performance and movie would not have been nearly as effective.

So anyway, empathy. It's what's for dinner...

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