Author J.R. Jamison explores how writing with an empathetic eye (and ear) can enhance character development.

Babies in hospital nurseries all have one thing in common: crying.

As a casual observer you may ask yourself: Is it because of the old man in funny glasses tapping at the viewing window? Or is it the nurse who came in and stirred awake little Sammy and that act of disturbance played repeat upon the others?

The closest answer is likely the latter.

All of us are born with mirror neurons, the basis for empathy. When one baby cries, another will cry. When a parent picks up a child, leans forward to rub noses and then laughs—guess what happens? You got it, the child laughs.

This form of observing and then mimicking can carry over into adulthood as well. When one person yawns during a conference session, you may see another person begin to stretch or place their hand over their mouth. Empathy is built into our DNA, and even if we don’t realize it our bodies, in these simple acts of everyday human interaction, are trying to help us find basic human connection and understanding.

And for writers, these small interactions can actually strengthen the writing process.

While writing for the most part is a solo adventure, understanding our characters’ motivations should not be something we simply make up. To get storytelling right, we can’t only play with the imaginary characters in our minds; we must put our mirror neurons into real-life action with real-life people who are different from us. And that goes beyond sharing a yawn.

In 2016, at the height of the Trump vs. Clinton battle for the presidency, I went on a road trip into the heart of Missouri with my conservative-leaning father; I am a self-prescribed left-leaning liberal. The result was my memoir, Hillbilly Queer. Two words that on the surface seem diametrically opposed yet sit so well next to one another. Thanks to my father, here’s what I learned about employing empathy in writing that I still use today to strengthen both my nonfiction and fiction writing (and, yes, these are in a particular order):

1. Authentic listening is an art—practice makes perfect:

All too often, conversations (or debates) happen like this: One person talks while the other person thinks about what they will say next. A better way is to be comfortable with pauses, trigger your mirror neurons, and be silent so the storyteller knows to keep going (although non-verbal cues, like a head nod, go a long way). Through this, the listener is no longer imposing themselves on the storyteller but rather providing the storyteller a space to share their own lived experiences.

2. Ask questions:

Wait, didn’t I say to be OK with silence? Well, yes, but eventually you will have to speak, otherwise it will be a pretty boring conversation; however, don’t make it all about you. If authentically listening, then the questions will come naturally. This is an opportunity to learn more about your storyteller: Why did they move from Missouri to Indiana? How did that sudden job loss disrupt family dynamics? What are their hopes, dreams, and lines in the sand?

3. Begin to see yourself (or your characters) in their story:

Find the irony in their life, and then turn that mirror around and see how you, too, are complex and raw and not perfect. That line in the sand they spoke about—what if you learn they have crossed it? And when have you also crossed one of those lines? Reflect on these kinds of deep questions to find the connections to your own life and writing.

4. Admit that we all have humanly flaws:

This is my favorite, and I never like to admit when I’m wrong, but often I am. When ego is put aside, it’s an opportunity to discover that the best stories (and characters) are full of nuance and live in the gray.

Regardless of if we agree or disagree with someone, understanding motivating factors of real-life people—and seeing yourself in their story—creates complexity and, yes, empathy. Give it a try, and if you do have a story that developed from empathetic eyes and ears, consider submitting it for the 2023 Empathy Prize for Nonfiction. My memoir helped launch this prize, and it all started by taking a road trip with my father during a time when we couldn’t have seemed more different.

Order a copy of Hillbilly Queer to see empathy in action.

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