Friday, December 8, 2017

The Gift of Empathy

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Writing accomplishes considerably more for authors than simply putting money in their pockets. In truth, for most writers, the money is more sporadic than you'd think and little more than icing on the cake. We write for more reasons that I can enumerate, but it boils down to this: we write because we can't not.

We'd love the hours spent at our computers to be more career and less hobby, but long before storytelling resembles a dependable money-making endeavor, dedicated writers are receiving gifts. Gifts that the writing itself imparts to the author.

No wrappings, no bows, nothing tangible to slip under the tree, but if you're working with any sort of consistency you might notice certain invisible attributes cropping up in your creative soul.

You begin to master things like people-watching, problem solving, impatience, procrastination, working when you don't feel like it, finishing what you start. I could go on and on--the disciplines that develop out of the daily grind are many and, strangely enough, they're treasures you dig out of your own chest.

Of all these hard-earned gems, the one I value most is empathy.

Reading has a way of developing this in us as well, but the act of creating a character, giving her a mind and a will, insecurities and faults, regrets and talents, a family history and a place in the world to inhabit--the time spent poring over and pouring into this creature can grow you.

The trick is to do it honestly.

Give your character dilemmas to solve, unsettled relationships, mountains to climb. In my own writing I've found that once I have the semblance of a character sculpted, certain things make sense for this character to do as she navigates her life and certain actions wouldn't make any sense at all.

On occasion, I'll get an email from a writer pal and it'll look like this (usually with a hint of panic attached):

So. I need my main character to poison her brother. But she loves her brother! Still, it has to happen. Only, why would she do that? Help! I need a reason.

And so we get to work. We begin to develop a motivation. Most likely this reason will change the character in fundamental ways. An adjustment that can be both difficult and helpful to the writer.  The lesson is this: there must be a reason for everything a character does.

Because there is certainly a reason for everything you and I do.

It's not always an intelligent reason or a moral reason. Often it's flawed and desperate. I find that most of my characters do things out of fear. That says a lot about me, I think, but it also helps me slide into the shoes of real-life human beings making decisions because they're afraid. I can empathize because in so many ways my characters are showing me what it's like to go, to do, to act, and to hurt out of a dark, terrified place.

It's a gift, friends. The ability to empathize.

And if you make it a habit to write honestly, the penning of a story will compel you to search out empathy--not just for your characters, but for those around you making choices you don't understand.

And right now, if there's anything this world needs more of, it's empathy. A willingness to climb out of our worn-in, cozy sneakers and into another's. We might be uncomfortable there. We might not like the roads those shoes take us down, but if we practice writing honestly, perhaps we'll remember to live honestly. In that way, the gift of empathy can lead us to build bridges. Not just in our stories. But in this great wide world.

A world that is sometimes very hard to understand.

Can you think of a gift your writing has given to you? We'd love to hear it.


  1. This may be a bit more selfish, but its given me release. I am introverted and I internalize things. I have a hard time putting things to verbal words, mostly feelings. But when I write, its something totally different. When I know its something only I'll see at first, its like I release out what's been bottled up in me.

    Even if its a work of fiction and I'm throwing my feelings into a character, it becomes real. And I'm able to somewhat let go of the pain I might be feeling.

    God has blessed me with the gift of writing. And I am truly blessed to have the ability to write with feeling, to convey what I mean. It's easier for me to write than to speak my feelings.

    That would be the gift writing has given to me. I just hope one day, my writing can bless others and encourage them, inspire them, uplift them.


    1. I do the same thing, Ivie. The main character of my first novel is cruel and angry, so I wrote him thinking that I was exploring someone who is different than I. Recently, though, I've realized that my inability to express my feelings to others has bottled up some anger inside of me, and writing it down gave me an avenue in which to recognize and face it through an impetuous character who doesn't have a reputation to protect.

    2. Ivie and Olivia, I'm also the same way. I tend to internalize my emotions, and writing is a way for me to say everything I've kept bottled up inside. About a year ago, I wrote a story in which the main character had PTSD--which I do not have, but without my realizing it, it reflected my struggles with anxiety.

      I agree that God has blessed me with the gift of writing. It's very freeing to be able to write something just for yourself (even if you do decide to share it eventually) and to be able to write from the deepest places of your heart. It's one of the many reasons that I write. :)

  2. Beautiful post. Writing honestly has been a topic on my mind a lot the past couple of years, and I think I'm slowly getting better at digging into the darker corners of my own heart and using what I find there to craft more authentic characters...which, as you said, leads to a better understanding of the equally flawed people around us. <3 It's a lifelong journey!

    I think writing has also helped me become more patient, more honest with myself, more confident, able to receive correction, dedicated, etc. It has been a blessing in so many ways! Not a comfortable blessing all the time, but I wouldn't trade it for anything!

  3. I'm an extrovert and have some separation issues so I love being around people 24/7. This is not always a good thing. Writing has taught me how important it is to be alone sometimes. It gives me a chance to be me and be an extrovert without all the people around me all the time.

  4. Mostly, what writing gives me is... stories. There's a quote that circulates a lot through writing circles: 'If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.' Learning to write has given me the ability to craft gorgeous stories, and even though they may not be published and shared with the world, they'll still be there for me. I'll always have these stories.

  5. Thank you for that beautiful blog post, Mrs. Dittemore! I agree that empathy is an invaluable takeaway from writing, because crafting good stories means giving the antagonist a reason behind the bad things he does. Since most of us at times want to hold on to bitterness, revenge, or whatever else that motivation might be, we can recognize that all humans are, in essence, the same. The only distinction between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" is how they choose to answer their motivations. In other words, righteousness will not cling to us based on some sense of inherent goodness; instead it must be pursued continually. Life (and, in particular, the Christian walk) is a process of striving to match an ideal, and crafting character motivation is one way I learned to recognize that.

  6. I love posts like this! :) For me, empathy is definitely a gift that writing has given to me, but it has gone way beyond that. A couple of years ago, I created a character (a bad guy, but not the main villain), and I realized that I actually really loved him, because I was able to empathize with him. Unfortunately, I already knew he would have to die in the end. But after that, my perspective on the world shifted - a lot. The story I had written was an allegory, a picture of the Gospel meant to point back to God, and the character in the story had a chance to start following God, but he didn't. For some reason this imagery stuck with me, and because of that story, I found what is now my passion: to spread the Gospel to those who have never heard it. Writing stories always helps me grow personally, but what I value even more is how it changes the way I look at the world.

  7. I'm not sure writing has given me empathy exactly but definitely the ability to comprehend other's motives and feelings. And it allows me to deal with difficult emotions and things in my life. I tend to try to,in movies especially,understand why the characters did what they did. Which occasionally has led me to like/understand characters others I know dismiss. Writing has also made try to be tactful. So overall,it probably has made me more empathetic,amongst other things.

  8. I think the gift my writing has given is the ability to empathize, like you said, Mrs Dittemore. Also the ability to grow as a person and to love yourself. My main characters started off as cowardly, full of self hatred and selfishness, but as time passed, they slowly learned to forgive themselves. I struggled to forgive myself for my mistakes, but as my characters grew, so did I. I think it's a beautiful feeling, to be able to grow and mature alongside your characters.