Empathy


I recently read a very informative book, Fight Like a Girl: Writing Fight Scenes for Female Characters. Being a male author who favors writing realistic female protagonists, the title immediately drew me in. I devoured the book in a single day, which I never do. It’s an amazing collection of facts and examples about the differences in psychology, sociology, and physiology between men and women—specifically how they perceive and respond to aggression and violence.


In my humble opinion, this book transcends the writing craft and should be required reading in every high school. Fiction authors shouldn’t be allowed to publish until they’ve read it cover to cover. Some of the information is intuitive based on casual observations of the opposite sex. Other revelations were, for me, impossible to divine without being explicitly told, because I lack the frame of reference to have drawn the proper conclusions myself.


The latter is the focus of this article.


Getting us on the same page before we dive in:


empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

To create a realistic character, authors must empathize with their point of view, even if they don’t agree with it, otherwise the character may come off as shallow, unconvincing, confusing, or just plain false. Doing so is easier if the author’s experience parallels the character’s, which is probably why many authors’ first works feature protagonists who are very similar to themselves. Characters whose experiences or points of view differ greatly from the author’s require hours or weeks of research to get right, ideally supplemented with personal interviews with people whose experiences closely resemble the character the author is attempting to create.


That’s why Fight Like a Girl caught my eye. I write predominantly female protagonists mixed with action, conflict, and sometimes violence. To write it convincingly, I need to understand how the opposite sex experiences such things. Otherwise, properly empathizing becomes impossible, and the characters will not ring true to female audiences. Worse, I might accidentally insult them, which is never my intent.


Fight Like a Girl didn’t disappoint. It validated many of my assumptions, which were frankly lucky guesses, and left me with much more to consider for future novels to bring another level of realism to my female characters.


It also left me with a feeling of unease, which required several days of reflection to pinpoint.


This book, presumably intended to create empathy between the sexes, lacks empathy for its primarily (I assume) male audience.


In retrospect, the warning sign was in the first sentence of the book’s tagline:


Women are not men with mammaries.

Clever, right? Well, let’s rewrite it with its implied ending:


Women are not men with mammaries, idiot.

Not quite as entertaining now. It’s quite clearly a barb aimed at men, albeit slight, but more so to someone who is actively seeking to understand the opposite sex to empathize and de-escalate aggressive situations, where possible. Insulting the intended audience in the tagline seems like a strange way to establish trust and sway male readers to her way of thinking.


That, unfortunately, is just the beginning. The book strives to present an objective point of view, with certain intentional exceptions where the author voices her opinion quite clearly. But there are notable passages where the author doesn’t appear to even attempt to empathize with her audience in favor of belittling them for not knowing something they realistically couldn’t.


An example:


Breasts. Male writers tend to get a little bemused with what to do about female breasts in a fight scene. (Often in perfectly ordinary scenes, too.) Here are a couple of tips.
By the time women are about 16 years old, they’re used to having breasts. They don’t cause overbalancing and women don’t dwell on them, much. Women with large breasts can have difficulties sleeping on their sides or stomachs, can have chronic back pain, and may find strenuous sports uncomfortable (excessive jiggling hurts). But, honestly, a decent bra solves the sports issues for the majority of women.

As someone who doesn’t have breasts, I found the second paragraph very informative. But, as written and as a male, I have a hard time not responding to the first paragraph with “duh,” and feeling a little put-off. It seems the author either doesn’t have a clue why males might get tangled and/or fixated when writing about female anatomy from a female’s perspective, or really doesn’t care because it’s more amusing to poke fun at the people she’s trying to convince to not inadvertently insult or embarrass females in their writing. Either way erodes my trust that she’s attempted to reciprocate the empathy she’s trying to evoke.


A tiny bit of injected empathy (or at least sympathy) can totally change the tone and go a long way toward swaying the reader, rather than pushing him away. Consider the following revision of the first paragraph:


Breasts. Understandably, male writers tend to get confused with what to do about female breasts in a fight scene. They don’t have anything equivalent, nor have their bodies rapidly grown two new, external organs, varying greatly in size from one person to the next, during adolescence. Here are a couple of tips.

Great! Now I know the author has at least attempted to see things from my perspective before launching into a litany of information that, without the correct context, may make me feel stupid because it could be implied these are facts I should somehow have guessed. The original paragraph, while entertaining to some, suggests exactly that.


The technique above isn’t novel. Skilled persuaders almost always establish shared understanding of the opposing viewpoint before presenting their own opinion. This avoids any doubt that the speaker doesn’t understand their way of thinking, skipping potentially long arguments, and opens a wider path for forward conversation. I guess my only regret is that the author didn’t take more time to establish shared understanding. The content is valuable and might have been even more impactful if she had.


All that aside, I have to reiterate what I said in the beginning: Fight Like a Girl should be required reading for fiction authors of any gender. My quibbles here are just that; not rants over serious offenses, but observations of how a few tweaks with empathy for the audience in mind might make it an even better book than it already is.


If you don’t already own it, stop writing and grab your copy now. Just be warned that, to some male readers, the author doesn’t necessarily practice what she preaches.

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