Saturday, 18 July 2015

Empathy - Part of a writer's toolkit -Linda Strachan

Getting inside the heads of our characters, regardless of age, sex, race or life experience is one of the challenges for a writer of fiction.  We need to feel for our characters and get under their skin if the way we portray them is to have any meaning and touch our readers. This takes a certain amount of empathy. As writers we must not only look at the people around us, but try to understand what they might be feeling.

I came across an amazing series of photos recently on NZ Aged Care Nursing community Facebook page.  Each photo showed an elderly person in front of a mirror.   The image in the mirror was a young version of themselves, often dressed for work as nurses, teachers, firemen or scientists, making us look at their lives - not their old age. Take a look they are fascinating.    NZ Aged Care Nursing community page

As writers we also need to look beyond what we see on the surface, and try to understand what led our characters to where they are.  To think about their experiences as a child, as they grow up, and see what made them who they are, and what choices they might have made to get to here and now.

 It got me thinking about the young me,when I was a child of 5.

When writing  for young children, whether consciously or not, we try to get back to what it felt like to be that age ourselves, remembering our own life experience. It gives us the chance to go back and remember what worried us, what was fascinating, or scary.

Remembering what it was like to be a teen or in my early twenties...  wondering - what I would tell the young me now, if I could go back?

Will I look back at myself in years to come, and wonder what else I could have done, what other road I might have taken?

The photos on that facebook page also reminded me of a story I heard a long time ago, on the radio,  called Lost for Words. It was written by Deric Longden and was subsequently made into a film with Pete Postlethwaite and Thora Hird.

It tells of how he looked after his ageing mother as she took a series of strokes. Humorous, touching and at times very sad, it stuck in my mind.

He visits her at home and wonders why her plants are dying. She tells him she'd been told to 'keep an eye on the roots'. So each day she whips the plant out of the pot to check on the roots.

When she is eventually moved to a nursing home he finds two young nurses changing her bed and talking over her head, ignoring her as they work. The next day he brings in a photo of her when she was young to put by her bed and they immediately start asking her about it.  She has become an interesting person to them, not just another old lady in a bed.

I use an exercise during creative writing workshops that gets people writing in the first person when their character is an age far removed from their own and of the opposite sex .

I have used this exercise with children as young as 8,  boys writing as an old lady of 92 and girls writing about being an old man of 89.    

We first discuss what might be happening to them in their life at that point, and what their situation might be - getting inside their character's heads, challenging the stereotypes and creating empathy for the character they are to become during the exercise.

It can be a lot of fun. I often read them an example of my own to get them started :-

 I am Tommy - 85
"Today is my birthday and I am 85.  I got a call from my son's wife, she said they were too busy to come and visit me today but would I mind if they came next week instead?
Would I mind? I mean, seriously, I'm delighted.  They are so boring!
They think I am old and will bring me grapes and flowers when they visit me in the nursing home they put me in. But I'm planning something much more exciting and I can't wait until tonight.
You see I used to be an escapologist so I'm taking Annie (she's 82 next week) and we are going to escape from the home wearing a disguise. We're off to Las Vegas. I'm going to steal the helicopter that sits on the roof of the nursing home, no one knows I can fly it!  When we get to Vegas I'm going to show Annie how to abseil off the tallest building we can find!"

It is interesting when a teenage boy admits to the class that the person he is to be for this exercise is Marg who is 76, but then I am always amazed by their insight and empathy when we hear what comes out of that particular exercise.

We all need empathy in all areas of our lives, but for a writer I think it is essential.


Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook - 
Writing For Children.

Linda's latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me . 
She is Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh.

Her best selling series Hamish McHaggis is illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby.

blog:  Bookwords 


Emma Barnes said...

I love the idea of this exercise so much I'm going to steal it!

Penny Dolan said...

Me too! Nice post, Linda.

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks, Emma and Penny. Feel free to steal it :)

Susan Price said...

And here's another one stealing it! - Great post, Linda.

Catherine Butler said...

I'm afraid you're being plundered by me too! Thanks, Linda!

Linda Strachan said...

Thanks Susan and Cathy. If I remember rightly, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery...!