October 25, 2019

Fiction, Imagination, and Empathy: Part 1

By Rebecca Dwight Bruff

How do we become empathetic beings? And how do writers help that to happen? I believe fiction, perhaps more than anything else, fosters and cultivates this essential human capacity.

Fiction, by definition, is imaginative invention. If we only read about people like ourselves, we simply reinforce what we already know or believe about ourselves and others. And if we only write about people like ourselves, people with our own characteristics and experiences, then it’s neither imaginative nor inventive. It’s also not very interesting.

When I began writing Trouble the Water, I tried to follow the common advice, “Write what you know.”

But the story is Historical Fiction. What did I know about living in South Carolina in the 19th century? What did I know about the life of the enslaved, or the motivations of the slave-holder? What could I possibly know about feelings, motivations, challenges, hopes and fears of a 20 year-old enslaved African American male?

Imagination – the extraordinary human capacity to explore ideas or concepts external to ourselves – invites us to consider what it’s like to be another person. Imagination opens us to wander through another person’s world and ask the important questions: What is this person feeling, thinking, hoping?

Imagination opens the door to empathy.

Empathy is the ability to sense or consider other people's emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Stories teach us, shape us, inspire us, warn us, and stretch us. Literature gives us empathy for those unlike ourselves.

Can a novelist legitimately tell the story of a person from another place, time, culture, nationality, religion, ethos, sexual orientation? Of course. If, as an author, I fail to explore the depths of human nature – motivations and emotions, desires and dark secrets, hurts and hopes, fears, loves, lusts, all of it – then I’ve not given my best; I’ve failed to honor the story.

Fiction is essential, a critical and necessary door into the otherwise walled-off world of thinking about “other” – other places or times or possibilities, other ideas, other people, other ways of being human together. Fiction and its requisite imaginative endeavor foster our shared humanity.

Sue Monk Kidd said that in writing Invention of Wings, she was inspired by the words of Professor Julius Lester, which she kept on her desk: “History is not just the facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.”

Empathy connects us across emotional and cultural distances. This is the privilege of the writing life. Part Two will appear on Monday, October 28, 2019.
Rebecca Dwight Bruff is the author of the award-winning Trouble the Water: A Novel, inspired by the life of Robert Smalls:   Rebecca heard Smalls’ story on her first visit to South Carolina. She was so captivated that she left her job in Dallas, TX and moved across the country to research and write this book. Bruff earned her Bachelors degree in education (Texas A&M) and Master and Doctorate degrees in theology (Southern Methodist University).  In 2017, she was a scholarship recipient for the prestigious Key West Literary Seminar. She volunteers at the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, South Carolina.  She’s published non-fiction, plays a little tennis, travels when she can, and loves life in the lowcountry with her husband and an exuberant golden retriever.  Visit Rebecca at her website: and Instagram:, Twitter: or Facebook:

No comments:

Post a Comment