If You're a Writer You May be an Empath

Sat May 21 2016

A couple of days ago an article floated through my twitter stream with the incredibly clickbait-y title of If You're a Writer You May be a Psychopath.


I simply couldn't let that stand without a response, because I firmly believe quite the opposite is true.

The article's premise is that psychology research shows that creative people, writers included, tend to score more highly on measures of personality traits that correlate with being a psychopath: Machiavellianism, narcissism, meanness, and so forth.

Some writers probably are. The world holds a full spectrum of people, no one size fits all, blah blah blah.

That said, I don't believe writers (the good ones, anyway) are psychopaths because I believe the mental skills necessary for being a good writer are contrary to the very meaning of psychopathy.

It's all about characters

I frequently characterize a story as:

  1. Characters,
  2. Taking action,
  3. In pursuit meaningful goals,
  4. Despite obstacles and opposition.

All four of those points are ultimately about the characters.

Point 1: Duh. You have to have some characters in your story or else nothing happens and it's not really a story.

Point 2: If your main characters aren't taking action (a flaw I see surprisingly often), your story will be boring. You have to get them moving, doing stuff, so they feel like real live people.

Point 3: People don't act randomly (that would make for an incoherent story), but rather, they act in order to fulfill their goals. They act because there's a way they'd like the world to be, which isn't currently true, and the only way to make the world be that way is to work at it. Thus, in order to have interesting actions to perform for point 2, a well-drawn character must also have goals. There has to be something they want, or else what's the story about?

Point 4: On the surface obstacles and opposition would seem to be about stuff outside of the characters, but it's really not. One obvious case is when an obstacle or opposition comes in the form of some other character: someone with their own goals that happen to be contrary to the main character's goals, and is taking their own goal-directed actions to achieve them. Less obviously, situational obstacles are also about the characters because in watching how they respond to the obstacles, we get to know them better. Characters reveal their personalities and mettle through their response to obstacles.

How we animate our characters

If you're going to be a good writer, you have to be able to accomplish all four of those points, simultaneously.

It sounds like a lot to keep in mind when it's broken down that way, but really it just means you have to do a good job of imagining yourself to be the character. If you were that person, in whatever situation the story has thrown at them, how would you feel? What would you want to do? What would you be able or unable to do?

Imagining those things usually points directly to what action the character would do: There's some action which the character can do and that leads most naturally towards their goals.

Writing = empathy

There's a word for "imagining yourself to be someone else so you can understand how they feel and think and will act". Empathy.

To write believable characters, ones that truly seem possessed of their own independent beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, feelings, goals, capabilities, and so forth, a writer needs just one thing: a vast store of empathy.

If you have it, you can deploy it in the service of animating the characters you've created. You don't animate them by telling them what to do or bossing them around like puppets. You animate them by letting them borrow your brain to think with.

After all, as imaginary people, there is no other brain but yours for them to use.

All the writer has to do, then, is simultaneously imagine themselves to be everyone in the scene. Think about how much empathy that takes.


In my view, good writers are the most deeply empathetic people I know. They have to be. If you don't have a deep sense of empathy, you simply cannot loan your brain to your characters. But if you do have that kind of empathy, how can it not spill out into the rest of your life? How can it not let you feel for the people around you?

Psychopaths lack empathy. Good writers can't do without it. You do the math.

And if that's not proof enough, the article itself notes this finding from the research:

Creative writers, on the other hand, are nice people: achievement in creative writing was negatively correlated with Meanness. In other words, good writers don’t like pushing people around… well, except their characters.

Doesn't that kind of give the lie to the article's whole premise?

Rest assured, writers. If you're doing your best to write characters who are real, independent people with their own hopes and dreams and fears, and who are acting based on those things (rather than based on what you want), you're not a psychopath. Quite the opposite.