First-Person Empathy

First-Person Empathy  

In my last blog, I considered empathy and writing, stating that for my work on this project I want to empathise with views and opinions I don’t understand (or necessarily agree with) through my playwriting. This blog explores this idea a little further, and make suggestions for the creative ways in which I think writers can practice empathy through playwriting. (Or at least, creative approaches I have found useful.) 

I’ve identified three ways in which I can practice empathy when writing plays: first-person writing, irreverence, and improvisation. 

In this blog I’m going to discuss writing in the first person. 

  1. Writing in the first person 

As a playwright, I currently don’t spend a lot of time writing in the first person, preferring to create scenes of dialogue between people than monologues (unless I’m specifically writing a monologue play). However, on this project, I’ve started to use monologue and first person narrative as a way ‘into’ the minds of some of the people from our cases. 

Working with Anna the poet has influenced this shift in my writing, as several of her poems have been written from ‘inside’ the mind of some of the people we are researching. This prompted me to return to thinking about the function of monologue and soliloquy from a first-person perspective in theatre. Stephen Unwin writes that “[i]n the modern theatre, soliloquies are often used to give the audience direct access to the characters’ psychological state” (109).[1] In this way, the use of a first-person perspective in a soliloquy might rapidly increase an audience’s empathy towards a character, because of the instant connection it provides to a character’s personal and private perspective. 

In our meetings I have been exploring using first-person perspective as a way to create empathy with a character. In one session Will set a useful exercise that demonstrates this. We had been reading quite a few extracts from writings on fin-de-siècle policing, to understand the way that the police and judiciary behaved. Will asked us to write some narration from the perspective of a juge d’instruction (investigating judge) who we have been studying. He suggested we try to write the moment of this man’s arrival in a town in two different ways – firstly using several short sentences, and then using just one long sentence.  

This was my quick attempt (place and names blocked/altered for anonymity): 

Short sentences: 

To XXXX! No time for lunch. A shame as I missed my breakfast. Perhaps hunger is necessary. The hunger for the truth. I take my best bowler. My handkerchief. My cravat. To look the part amongst peasants. So much to do. Initial reports. Crime reconstruction. Witness statements. Statement from the accused. My head swims. Where to begin? Which action to take first? F—-, Doctor G, Monsieur G and I arrive. Sweating. Hot for April. I’m anxious heat will damage the camera. Sergeant gives us the briefest facts. Blah blah blah. Keen to see the scene. See the body. Follow my nose… 

Long sentence: 

Arriving in the quiet village in the afternoon April sun one would hardly imagine the little birds flitting around the rooftops had seen such horrors only a few hours before, but the pleasant weather only served to remind me of the hideous reason F—-, Doctor G, Monsieur G and I found ourselves quite far from Strasbourg that balmy Tuesday afternoon reporting to the local sergeant before we began the meticulous duties of raking over every scrap of evidence to be found amongst the dusty streets, which would hopefully lead us towards uncovering the truth – as grim and upsetting as that might be.   

It was striking to me that the two attempts produced completely different outcomes, as can be seen. To my mind, the ‘short sentences’ attempt feels innately theatrical – it is written more like throw-away dialogue, it has pace and drama and suggests an excitable character. The longer sentence obviously has a much steadier and more meandering pace – suggesting a self-confident and perhaps more serious character. I think both would work well on a stage, to alternative effects. 

How did I write these? Well, they weren’t purely imagination. Thanks to Will’s research, we had official documents from the investigating judge.

One of these was a statement of travel, which included the following (names/place again redacted):

Statement of Travel

At 2pm on 14th April 1925. […] I, XXXX XXXX, juge d’instructionin Strasbourg, accompanied by the deputy public prosecutor F—-, and Monsieur G. our clerk and interpreter, as well as Doctor G., appointed expert by an order drawn up today

We also had access to notes from the visit to the crime scene, which included: 

We travelled to XXXX where we took the following actions. The sergeant of the Erstein gendarmerie who was waiting for us at the location briefly explained the crime scene and then took us to see the victim, who no-one had yet touched.

Will also showed us some photographs from the reconstructed crime scene and pointed out a figure in one of the photographs that he considers may be the investigating judge himself. From these archival documents I was able to approach writing him in the first-person by deducing facts and making certain guesses: the time of day, the weather at the scene, what he was wearing, who he was with and how he was documenting his evidence. 

From these intimations, I felt confident to be able to write from his first-person perspective. Certainly, without Will’s research, placing myself in the mind of a French nineteenth-century investigating judge, would have been a lot more tricky! Translating the research into first-person narration has certainly made me empathise more with him – it helped me to magnify the research and ask: ‘from these documents, what can I deduce about his physical and mental state, and his feelings in this situation’? 

Perhaps all this seems fairly obvious: monologues increase empathy with a character. But I suppose the point is that it is useful for me to be reminded of this as I am usually so drawn to writing scenes of dialogue between people, which do not contain any direct address. Further, as my ‘short sentences’ exercise showed, a monologue does not have to be a rambling, contemplative lecture. It can be fast, pacey, and action-packed whilst still allowing the audience to empathise with the main character. It is watching someone literally thinking on their feet. 

And writing this I’m suddenly reminded of how fantastic Philip Ridley is at writing these sorts of monologues, and how when I saw Gemma Whelan perform his Dark Vanilla Jungle I barely took a breath the entire hour because I empathised so fully with her character’s journey. And I flick back through the playtext, and of course – there they are. Those useful short sentences, punching out pace and pain, and eliciting empathy whilst they do so:

“He gets in the car. He starts the engine. I rush over and lay in front of the wheels. No I don’t. I wait for the car to drive away. I scream. I scream so loud cracks appear in the concrete. Light bulbs explode. The whole car park starts to crumble around me.” (20) [2]

And on that dystopian note, my next blog will consider the second way I am trying to practice empathy in my creative writing – through irreverence…


[1]Unwin, Stephen. The Well Read Play. London: Oberon Books, 2011. 

[2]Ridley, Philip. Dark Vanilla Jungle and other monologues. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

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