EMPATHY – We Never Quite Get it Right



As I explained in last week’s post, Emma Coats is a storyboard artist at Pixar Studios.

She compiled a list of writing rules the Pixar creators use to build the stories for their animated films.

Last week I wrote some commentary about rule one.

This week we’ll address Rule #2. Emma writes:

You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

To me this advice points towards EMPATHY. And what is empathy? Well, empathy is…

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Sharing the feelings of others would certainly align with keeping in mind what’s interesting to an audience. But I’ll add another factor. And here it is.

We don’t all think alike, perceive our world in just one way, share values in the same way, or even agree on “INTRINSIC TRUTHS” like the definition of good and evil.

And you’re thinking…duh…everybody knows that.

Yeah? We all know that? So why are we still trying to make everything the same? The “same” as in, OUR way. People do it. Tribes do it. Nations do it. Do writer’s do it?

Do we writers assume our readers are just like us?

I don’t think many writers believe their audience is just like them. But I think they believe their readers are enough like them so that many moral and ethical principles don’t have to be explained and that their “market” is homogenized and wide.

It just might be if you’re writing within a genre. Your readership is more narrowly focused as well as your story structure. The intrinsic truths, the good guys and bad guys, are fixed.

In general literary fiction and LIFE, nothing is fixed.

So when writing outside a specific story category, we authors must thoroughly understand the audience we’re writing for and speak to them in terms they believe and understand. In political writing, that’s called appealing to your base.

In real-life, we’re more comfortable hanging with our base, agreeing with our base and going to war with our base. It also helps if we’ve married our base.

I thought I did, and for the most part my wife and I share the same values and goals. But we don’t think alike. And we don’t approach tasks in the same way either. So like most people (but not my wife) I think I’ve figured out the best way to do most everything. And since I married the girl of my dreams, (a self-determined woman) my wife and I argue sometimes about how to do stuff together.

You would think that after thirty-seven years of marriage I would have figured out that neither one of us are going to change, but I keep pressing her anyway. I want my wife to switch from her process to my process. How silly.


A few weeks ago I wrote about how my wife continues to misplace things and leave her cell phone at home. Soon after that post, while she and I were making dinner, I brought that topic up again. I wanted to convince my best friend to leave her stuff in the same place so she’d know where to find it.

The conversation got heated really fast. My wife resented my insistence that she adopt my system (that she act more like me). And I was thinking, But it’s not about me! It’s about an efficient practices everyone should be using!

So for all the right reasons, my premise: that my wife should be thinking ahead, came off as arrogant. I didn’t see that though. All these years it was my understanding that everyone could change behavior once they figured out it would save them time and inconvenience.


My wife said to me, almost in tears, “But I can’t!”

“What do you mean, you can’t? Having a spot for phone and keys is a simple decision.”

“I don’t lose my things!”

“Yes you do! All the time! Don’t you want to stop that?”

“I can’t!”

“Of course you can!”

“NO I CAN’T! Don’t you think if I could, I would?”

And then silence. And then it hit me. She really can’t lock into routines. She doesn’t think that way. It’s NOT a choice.

And all this time, I thought I was empathetic!


Here’s another example about the futility of trying to change hearts and minds.

As you probably know, I wrote the trilogy, Irv’s Odyssey. Although the plot revolves around the porn movie business, a mental hospital, food service and finding the right girl, it’s really a spiritual journey from atheism to a concept of Universal Connection – a We’re-All-One kind of thing.

Naively I thought that if I accurately described all the logical steps that embraced my shift of beliefs, I would be able to carry all my readers with me. I believed that once reading my book, my audience would understand the way I see the world and agree with it.

WRONG again.

My readers interpreted my words in terms they had already accepted long before picking up my books. Concepts that were not already incorporated into their philosophy didn’t apply to my story. They edited my content, choosing to follow the parts they already believed or had experienced.

And so I learned another lesson. Explaining something a thousand times with a thousand examples may never convert another person’s perceptions and beliefs.

More often that not, for any number of reasons, people can’t or won’t change the way they think. Everyday people look at the same situation and come to entirely different conclusions.

Sure, we all know this. Yet we continue to assume we’re all on the same page when arguing a point. And we writers? What about us? Do we still think, They’ll know what I mean?

They may not.

And Emma is pointing this out when she says that when authoring fiction, entertaining one’s self is a good start but we still have to ask:

  • To whom am I writing?
  • How diverse is my audience?
  • Am I communicating in their language?
  • Where are the universal agreements? What intrinsic truths are not in debate?
  • How far away can I move from conventional wisdom before I lose most of my audience?
  • Am I logically laying down all the dots so my readers can connect them? Or am I deliberately skipping connections because I assume, “They’ll know what I mean.”

I know you know this. But it’s good to be reminded.

Writing engaging fiction is dependent upon accurately describing the intrinsic human truths we all share and portraying believable behavior motivated by those truths.

And while we’re at it, we might as well try even harder to be empathetic, reminding ourselves that getting along and loving others is all about accepting people for what they are, not for what we want them to be.

As cliché as that sounds, and it is, we never quite get it right.


Originally published on Curiosityquills.com.



  1. Jerry's Cousin says:

    Your wife sounds very much like my husband. I’m very organized and I keep trying to show him how easy it is, but he just can’t do it. I guess that’s human nature.
    As for writers, no two write the same. Many write to a specific audience and that’s all they want. Some try to write for everyone and that is difficult.
    I, as a reader, may not always understand the writer’s point of view, but I read what is written and do my own interruption and I think that’s okay, too.
    Irv, sometime just write to make you happy, forget the audience and see what happens.

    1. Irving H. Podolsky says:

      JC. I DO write for myself, and there’s not much of an audience…yet. But it’s not over ’til it’s over.

  2. Sandra Aholt says:

    The general meaning of ethics: rational, optimal (regarded as the best solution of the given options) and appropriate decision brought on the basis of common sense. This does not exclude the possibility of destruction if it is necessary and if it does not take place as the result of intentional malice.^..

    Most up-to-date post on our own blog site

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