Introverts, Empathy, and the Art of Creating Character

Blue WomanI am an introvert.

Growing up, I never would have admitted that. Up until a few years ago the label “introvert” pretty much meant socially awkward, shy, and kind of of dorky. And while I am also sometimes awkward, sometimes shy, and definitely a dork about certain things, when I say I’m an introvert I’m talking about something else entirely.

I’m only able to recharge my batteries if I’m left alone with my own thoughts. And I have a lot of thoughts I need to be left alone with. If the normal person’s nervous system is running at about a 3 or 4 as they walk down a city street, mine’s at a 7 or 8. I hate parties. I hate small talk. I hate large crowded areas like malls and football games.

Not all introverts share these traits with me, but I know a lot of them do. We introverts tire of other people easily because we observe and absorb everything. We don’t say much, but our minds are relentless processors of all sorts of information. Being introverted is an orientation. It’s like having brown eyes or curly hair. It’s not something you choose, it’s something you’re born with.

As an introvert, I grew up always pushing myself to be more outgoing. To go to the party, the big show, the mall, wherever all my friends were going and was supposed to be so much fun. I criticized myself for being too sensitive and too intense, and for thinking too deeply about things. I’ve always been extremely empathetic and for a long time, I tried to shut that off.

Until recently, when I realized that my super-size empathy is one of my strongest gifts as a writer.

I can instantly pick up on someone’s mood. They don’t have to tell me something’s wrong—I just know. If one of my coworkers walks into the room feeling anxious, my chest gets tight. If a friend flies into a rage I feel dizzy and sick. This can be enormously inconvenient in everyday life.

But when I bring that same empathy to my writing—KA-ZAM!

For instance, as I’m writing a scene I watch one of my characters fiddle with a coffee stirrer, breaking it into tiny pieces. I watch his hands make those nervous motions and sense his fear. I dive into his head and feel his heartbeat thumping out of control. He’s terrified someone will find him out. He’s convinced he’s not good enough, and he never has been.

Quickly, I swivel my camera eye to my other character, who sits across the table from him. Her lips are pursed, flat and colorless. Her face is closed, her eyes shuttered. I can read the distrust. I can feel the sting of betrayal. He’s cheated on her again, she just knows it. I feel the lump of cold ice in my own stomach.

Looking over the scene above, suddenly you can see how the traits of an introvert—sensitive nervous system, meticulous observation skills, highly active empathy—can advance the way you draw characters. Some introverts will tip the scales more on analytical observation, and some will tip more toward intuitive empathy, it all depends on what type of writer you happen to be.

Both sets of skills bring a strong advantage to your writing.

If you’re really serious about fully accessing this skill set, you’ll need to practice sniffing around the outside layer of a character and then letting those clues draw you inside, into the deeper layers. This is called intuitive character development, and it can take your characters’ layers from Wonderbread slice to textured, flaky croissant.

Extroverted writers can also benefit from using these skills. For extraverts, this side of their personality might not be what they use as their “default mode” but they definitely still have it. All writers have an intuitive/analytical streak running through them. That’s why we are writers. We compulsively see the world through the eyes of characters, of “others”, and we are driven to express that inner vision in words. And if you’re not sure where you fall on the introvert/extrovert spectrum you can take personality tests online to find out your type.

So if you’ve always been called “too sensitive” it’s time to reexamine that part of yourself through a different lens. Bring your intuitive self to your writing and see how bright your characters can shine.

And if you’re interested in learning more about introvert writers and how we work check out my book:

The INFJ Writer

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