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May 5, 2017

Point of View and the Empathetic Writer

by Chris

One of the stories I’m currently in the progress of writing involves a plethora of viewpoints (seriously—there are at least a dozen throughout the novel), all surrounding a couple of main characters. It’s an interesting way to approach the story because we actually don’t get to experience the ‘main’ character’s thoughts or voice until very late in the novel. It’s also a difficult way to approach writing a story because each point of view needs to be fresh, vibrant and, crucially, unique.

Most stories are told from limited points of view; we are introduced to a main character, a protagonist, and rarely see the world from outside their perspective. Some will branch out to a few subsidiary characters, but generally, we get to experience the thoughts, actions, and feelings as told by the main character, or as told by a third-party narrator who has an innate understanding of the main character.

There are, of course, exceptions. One of my favorite multiple-POV books is Dracula, where the narrative is told exclusively through diary entries and newspaper articles of the book’s cast of characters. In fact, the titular antagonist is never heard from, only heard about, and this is one of the things that makes it such a terrifying novel: the villain remains mysterious, and thus dangerous, throughout.

The question for me—particularly in writing my current novel—is how to authentically portray a variety of characters whose thoughts and experiences might not match my own. I am a thirty-plus white male, and many of my characters are teenage girls. Even if I draw on the memories of my own teenage years, there are by definition things these girls go through that I will never have experienced. How does one make such characters three-dimension, vibrant, and believable?

Naturally, part of this dilemma comes from the premise of the story in the first place. If the book is primarily plot-driven—as is most fantasy and sci-fi, and indeed most genre fiction—then the characters’ viewpoints at best serve to advance the plot, and often represent a way of describing events that the primary characters are unable to witness or participate in. When Tolkien split The Two Towers, it was to ensure that the reader kept up with the progress both of Frodo and Sam toward Mordor, and of Aragorn against the armies of Isengard. Both of these are plot points that the story hinges on, and we wouldn’t have known about one or the other had we stuck with just one character.

But what about when the story is not about the plot as much as about the characters themselves? The thoughts, emotions, and motivations of the cast come to the front, and it’s in these types of stories that the points of view must be entirely believable. Every thought, every piece of dialogue, must sound as though it could only have come from that character to the point where the reader would be jolted out of the world you’ve created if the dialogue is misappropriated.

This is where the writer’s ability to empathize with their characters becomes paramount. When Jay Asher wrote Thirteen Reasons Why, he made the choice to write from the point of view of a teenage boy, listening to the point of view of a teenage girl. So how does a grown man empathize with a young girl? How did Asher know how to make Hannah’s tapes believable and authentic?

It’s very difficult to pin down what empathy truly is, and even harder to explain how to have it. Some people might define it as ‘feeling with’ someone; that you feel the same pains and joys that they do. Yet this relies on experience—of having lived through something similar, if not identical. When I write about a young girl with severe depression I can empathize because I’ve been there. I’ve suffered that misery.

But what about when you haven’t been through anything even remotely similar? I can’t physically empathize with a young girl because I never was one. I can’t say that I know how it feels to lose a mother, or a daughter, because (thankfully) I’ve never been there.

At what point does empathy stop being about what you’ve experienced yourself, and how do you handle that? The writer’s imagination comes to the forefront here, and this is perhaps a better measure of that imagination than even the plot or story itself. For a writer to be able to write about something that they haven’t experienced and still come across as genuine to someone who has lived through it, takes a quality of imagination a step beyond the ordinary adventure tale.

Some of these stories are successful; some are not. I recently watched M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, which deals with Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID. And while the story itself is engaging and thrilling, I couldn’t help but feel that it does a disservice to those people who genuinely suffer from DID. I’ve interacted with a couple of people with DID, and I couldn’t help wonder if they would be offended by the summarizing of their disorder into what is, essentially, a madman.

The act of writing a story is kind of like telling a lie: the most effective ones blend a measure of truth into the falsehoods. It shouldn’t be apparent which parts of the story have come from the writer’s own life, and which came from their imagination. A seamless integration of fiction and reality is what drives a compelling story, and encourages the reader to see the author as an authority on their subject matter, whether it be mental illness or fantastical creatures.

And I suppose that true empathy is also a mixture of experience and imagination; the ability to see the world through another’s eyes is a difficult task, and the masters of this skill are often those best able to tell stories … or lies.

Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris's creativity since his youth. Throughout his life he has expressed this through music, art, and literature, delving deep into the darkest parts of human nature, and finding the elegance therein. These themes are central to his current literary project, The Redemption of ErĂ¢th. A dark epic fantasy, it is a tale of the bitter struggle against darkness and despair, and an acknowledgment that there are some things the mind cannot overcome. Written from a depth of personal experience, Chris' words are touching and powerful, the hallmark of someone who has walked alone through the night, and welcomes the final darkness of the soul. However, for now, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at

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  1. What you're attempting to do will be a learning experience and that is the best kind of writing we do. I read Sol Stein's Other People as first a learning experience for character voice and then as one for writing. It was phenomenal. Every character is written in first person, yet he is able to give each character their own voice and you don't confuse any of them. Interesting concept and a challenging one. Good luck with your project. I'll look forward to reading it.

    1. I'll have to check that book out - some of the early feedback I've had is that a couple of the characters feel interchangeable. Thank you!

  2. Creating a convincing perspective is one of the biggest achievements of every writer.

    1. It's especially difficult when you (as the writer) have limited experience with the perspective you're trying to create. Possibly the most heartening feedback I've had so far was from a woman who said it reminded her of her own childhood.

  3. Superb article, Chris, from another Chris.

    The kinds of posts I love to read, and which I indeed write a lot about myself.

    I think I once read somewhere that "all fiction is a lie, but a good author is able to show the truth behind the lie".

    I, personally, don't write genre fiction, but endeavour to deal with my characters' senses of alienation, like with depression etc, anything whereby s/he might feel a little out of the ordinary. I am, therefore, like yourself, fascinated by pov, narrative voice in general, and how we as authors might attain some sort of authenticity, whatever the perspective, or whether or not we have had similar experiences.

    Indeed, i'm fighting with those very issues with regard to my up and coming books.

    I'll be back here

    1. Thank you, Chris! I think there's a place for genre fiction (which I do write under a pen name), and I think it's possible to deal with human issues in such fiction, if done properly. That being said, it's easier to drive a point home about things such as depression, feeling ostracized, etc., by tackling the characters head-on. Plot shouldn't be secondary, but it shouldn't come at the expense of the characters.

  4. This sounds interesting and challenging at the same time. I am also a huge Dracula fan. Good luck with the book!

    1. Thank you! It's definitely been challenging to write, and I'm looking forward to finding out how challenging a read it is (I hope it hits home for a lot of people). I loved Dracula, and I think the element of horror that was most effective was the idea that, in reading people's diary entries, you really didn't know if anyone was going to make it out alive. It's possible it served as a subconscious inspiration for the narrative of my own book!