Building empathy through writing

Empathy.

Image adapted from image by Flickr user Sean MacEntee

I believe one of the most important things books can teach readers, particularly young readers, is empathy. Studies have shown that those who read more tend to have more empathy and understanding for people whose situations are different from their own. This is one of the arguments of the We Need Diverse Books movement — that books should be windows through which readers can view and understand different cultures, gender identities, belief systems, etc. as well as mirrors in which readers of those cultures, gender identities, belief systems, etc.  can see themselves and feel validated.

Sometimes, when I’m between projects or just stuck working on something, I’ll challenge myself to write a scene from the perspective of a character whose background is completely different from my own. Sometimes that means writing someone whose religious or political beliefs are the opposite of mine, which makes for very difficult writing. But I try to put myself in those characters’ shoes, to examine what kind of upbringing and experiences could have shaped them.

I didn’t realize how much writing had expanded my empathy until a couple weeks ago, when several U.S. states closed their borders to Syrian refugees following the Paris attacks. I never would have felt comfortable turning away people who are fleeing violence, who want to be productive, valued members of society, and who want their children to grow up somewhere safe. But when I read the news, I felt gutted. In my current WIP, one of the main characters is a Syrian refugee whose family is struggling to find asylum. I’ve done a lot of research on the refugee crises from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, and the recent backlash directed against refugees (the overwhelming majority of whom have no connection to ISIS/Daesh) felt personal. For me, refugees aren’t faceless individuals anymore; they’re a fourteen-year-old boy who loves gaming and drawing forced to grow up too fast. They’re the sister he tries to protect, the father he was separated from who may or may not be alive still, the mother and uncle he lives with in a camp full of other displaced families.

That’s the power of stories. And that’s why I hope more writers will write outside their comfort zones, putting themselves in others’ shoes and telling the stories they may not have heard growing up. Do I worry about getting things wrong? Every day. But I do my best to listen and learn from others whose experiences more closely match my characters’. When the book is ready, I’ll seek out beta readers within the communities my characters belong to.

Even with all my research, I know I’ll make some mistakes. There is no universal experience for any racial, cultural, religious, gender, sexual, etc. identity, and not everyone will be 100% happy with my work. So I’m prepared to accept responsibility for the mistakes I make, to apologize, and to do better next time.

Do you write outside your comfort zone? Do you have any suggestions for those who want to? Please share in the comments.

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