When I write fiction, I often struggle with character development. I wasn’t sure why at first. I sensed that because of my own trauma, insecurities and pain, I misread people’s behaviour, which didn’t allow me to build a holistic picture of someone’s personality in a story. So when I wrote or even talked about people, I always questioned my own biases.
But as I healed, I realized I was an empath who could zero in on a person’s feeling–or perhaps my trauma made me one. When I see a nervous person doing a presentation, my heart beats for him or her just as how much theirs is probably thudding, and I feel their anxiety. When someone is unhappy but doesn’t say anything, I feel their sadness (I’m not sure where the melancholy comes from, but it’s there). And when someone is joyful, I also feel joy, with it travelling down to the pit of my stomach sometimes; I feel lighter.
Anxious Attachment and Empathy
I should note I have an anxious attachment style, which I’ve learned to tame well, and am probably closer to secure attachment after almost a decade of mindful healing (caveat: the anxiety will likely never go away, but I’m equipped to deal with it with growing emotional intelligence). Perhaps having an anxious attachment style is connected to being empathetic. I’m not sure.
Here’s another thing with anxious attachment; we have a visceral bell that rings when something is wrong–not just with us, but with other people. In the book Attached: The Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep– Love it was stated that people with anxious attachment styles can almost always tell when something is wrong in a relationship, way before someone with a secure style. That’s because they’re vigilant about detecting intrinsic cues quickly; it’s a survival skill, typically stemming from something that happened in their childhood.
I cannot tell you the countless times I instantly knew a relationship was over with a man before he even knew it (or his subconscious did but he didn’t), because his energy, seemingly harmless words and behaviour betrayed him. And this knowing is why anxious people are sometimes labelled as crazy. It can be a slight pause after a comment they hear, or when the communicator’s eyes linger down for a split second. When anxious people are accused of being crazy, when they see a truth no one does, they start to think that they are in fact, crazy–and this is when we anxious types stop trusting ourselves. This is when we think our intuition betrays us, so we stop listening to it.
Sometimes, there really is nothing there. As I mentioned above, our own trauma can blur our judgment. But as someone who has healed, I can confidently say when you learn to refine your emotional gauge by trial and error, through watching and listening to people, you’ll know when something is the truth (usually the quiet, calm inner voice) and when something is trauma (a loud, angry, defiant one). And then you learn to discern.
When you learn to discern, that’s when you become a good empath. Because you learn to see what makes people behave the way they do. And you get an insight into their trauma. This is what can make you a better writer. You show the reader how behaviour is arrived at, which transfers empathy from your words to their minds, creating an informed perspective.
The behaviours you see can give you insight into someone’s past. The behaviours you see, can show you what that person went through when they were six years old, and how it created a relational blueprint with others. An incident processed incorrectly can create a lifetime of pain and suffering.
I once came across a Debbie Downer, who, no matter what anyone suggested to make her life better, would always find an excuse not to do something. A first, I thought she was an entitled person who thought the world owed her something, who thought she didn’t have to work hard to become successful. But the more I probed, the more I realized she had self-limiting beliefs; she was scared that if she tried anything, she would fail. She didn’t have the confidence to be uncomfortable with not being able to do something. And sadly, when I met her parents it all came together. Their own self-limiting beliefs came from a stricken poverty mindset; put your head down, stay in your lane and you’ll coast through life unharmed. It was a protective mechanism, a classic case of intergenerational trauma.
Through trying to observe people with as little judgment as possible, the characters in my stories started to come to life. It was by working through my trauma– and consequently the empathy I developed– that I could portray those who couldn’t advocate for themselves, or didn’t have the tools to see past their own experiences.
There are stories I write where I make characters do things that could be seen as uncharacteristic. This is unintentional and experimental (at least in the drafting phase). If I make a quiet girl yell or a jock date a nerd, I know my subconscious is at work. It’s trying to tell me something about this character, and I need to be patient, letting them emerge from within. Quiet girl has so much to say because she’s always listening (“you don’t learn when you talk, you learn by listening”). And that jock secretly feels like a nerd too, because he’s really good at math, but can’t let anyone know because it’ll cramp his style.
Rediscovering Blind Spots
The best people who recalibrate our ability to see things we no longer see are children. I have a niece who is five years old. Her name is Laila and as a nickname, I call her Lai Lai. One time, she told me her name was Laila, and not to call her Lai Lai. It was a polite, innocent request.
I don’t ever remember telling anyone not to call me something I don’t like to be called by, for fear of embarrassing the other person, so I always stayed silent. But after the incident with Laila, I realized it was ok to correct people without negative repercussions. Whenever I created a nickname for someone, I asked them if it was ok if I called them that, politely, just like Laila. In most cases it was, and I sensed people appreciated it when I asked for consent. It made them feel their opinion was valuable, even if they had every right to make it so since it was about themselves.
People’s actions tell us more than what they say, and it’s up to us writers to clear our own judgments and present them in the most transparent light. Being empathetic is one of the most effective tools we can use to create a complex character.