10 January 2021

B2020 and A2020: How 2020 has influenced what we want to read and what we will write.

As we are bombarded with news of COVID-19 deaths, the rising unemployment and the latest attack on Capital Hill - many of us wonder how this can happen and why do some people not care?

More and more we are hearing stories from the frontline, from the unemployment line, from lines at food-banks and, from homes where seniors live. We are hearing about policies that thoughtlessly harm others and we ask - didn’t they even think about these people’s lives?

After living through 2020 – and face it, 2020 might just be a prologue to the book  “The Horrors of 2021” - we will never be the same and I suspect that what we want to read is forever changed. 

Literature changes because readers change. 

When I was a child, I would often rummage through my father’s extensive library. I remember some old books, where the room would be meticulously described, from the sun dappled curtains to the chair with slightly worn arms. These descriptions would often be a page long. I remember wondering if I was simply less observant than most people or if these descriptions were simply overdone. Being a curious child, I watched my friends and family carefully. I decided that none of them spent enough time observing to be able to write a page of details and that the people in these books had a different life, were different people or the author just made up stuff. I would still read some of those books but with a stern skim over the sun dappled this, the intricate patterns of that and any other such useless info. 

There are many takes on the immense suffering we have seen in 2020, but I suspect many readers will be drawn to different writers. Just as none of us have patience for a page long descriptions as characters enter a room, I believe we will have less patience for characters who wander the world doing things, noticing things but failing to empathize with people. Let’s face it, Sherlock Holmes was delightful, but who is going to write a book today where the characters notice the hair, that came from a rare species of cat, owned by only two families in the city, coupled with a smudge of brown dust from a particular type of stone, found in the statues of lions that sit by the doorway of one of those families? Yep. No one. Most of us read it, but we don’t write like that anymore. 

I think that many readers who have lived through this year - and the worse year that is coming - will demand characters with empathy. Not sympathy, but empathy. 

The definition of empathy is: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

This stands in contrast to sympathy defined as: sympathy implies sharing (or having the capacity to share) the feelings of another, while empathy tends to be used to mean imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that one does not actually have.

If 2020 has made many of us yearn for anything, it is for people who have empathy and can imagine and feel what someone else is feeling - without having to be explicitly told and without having to have felt it themselves. Why? Because we are not all 90-year-old women, living alone in a care home, unable to see anyone. We are not all a single mother, with children to feed but with no money to feed them after we lost our job. We are not all ICU doctors, struggling to cope with losing patient after patient nor are we those who have to transport body after body to refrigerated trucks. We are not any of these people but we want someone, any one, to care about these people and tell us about them. 

What about sympathy – understanding the feelings that we actually have? This feels a little self-centred and, these days more than ever, the self-centred are at best unpopular and at worst, the villains of 2020: from anti-maskers to those who care only about staying in power.

I suspect many of us, who read voraciously,  and who have lived through this time , will want books with more characters who understand and feel what others are feeling and put us in their shoes. Detective novels highlighting not merely action but also empathy might become much more popular. I suspect this is true for all types of writing, from news stories to medical writing. I suspect we might have had our fill of self-centred characters, and I also suspect that they will often be cast as villains because, goodness knows, it feels ugly now. I have found that news stories, articles and - one could argue - political choices seem to already incorporate empathy more than before this dreadful year.

One could argue that good writing has always put us in the shoes of others, immersing us in their worlds. Somewhat true - but it is about the weight one gives to certain things. Do we devote pages to describe a room when a character enters it? Not anymore. So writing may have many elements in common but weight given differs. Weighting empathy heavily would change what we read. 

This may just be my new perspective but I doubt it. However, from a personal point of view, I am eager to read the new types of articles, books and characters born from 2020. I also look forward to new ways of telling the news, writing medical articles - any type of writing that tries to reach people who have lived this terrible year and await, with some trepidation, the unveiling of 2021. 

Whatever happens with various forms of writing, I believe that there will be fundamental changes in what writers write and readers read because we will never be the same after 2020.


  1. Interesting blog- particularly if you think that we are what we read.

    1. Thanks, Janice. I think we are - and then we read. They are connected. As you know, some people have just angry these days. I think we know what they're reading...

  2. We will never be the same. Empathy. Missing in many books, missing in the actions of many people. My recurring characters have empathy, some more than others and I realize the one with the most are my favorites to write.

  3. I love this, O'Neil. More writers like you, please.

  4. Thought-provoking essay, Mary. Thank you.

    I'm with O'Neil on characters, too. I can't read "action thrillers" because the characters feel like comic book puppets. Long ago, I discovered that I couldn't really flesh out my own characters until I understood how and why they were hurting. All my series characters have scars from painful lessons they still remember. I like to think that helps readers relate to them, too, so I absolutely agree with your ideas here, too.

    1. Thank you, Steve. I believe that writers like you, who have elevated empathy, will have longevity after this horrible year. I agree with you about characters who are simply doing things - I find it hard to care what they do.

  5. Definitely, empathy. And a strong belief in truth and justice.
    BTW, part of the reason the 19th century novels described everything meticulously is that (1) photography was rare and entirely in grainy black and white, (2) travel was rare, and (3) there was no TV, etc. If you wanted to be entertained at home, you read.

    1. Thank you, Eve. That's a valuable historical perspective. I didn't know that!

  6. Great article. 2020 will change what we write and why we write it. We'll all have 2020 moments both shared and deeply personal. Hopefully, that "shoes of others" sharing is a gateway to empathy.

  7. Interesting article, although I partly disagree. Will the pandemic and all other distressing situations change what we prefer to read? Perhaps. Will we prefer characters with empathy from now on? Perhaps. Do we prefer them over the Sherlock Holmes-type of personage? I don't think so. It depends on your inner drive to read. For many it's a diversion. Reading about empathic protagonists, or reading about characters you can empathize with, also means reading about all the things you may prefer to get away from. Perhaps now more than ever. Reading about a cool, reasoning character who stays firmly on his feet in an apparently unsolvable situation, and who solves it with pure thinking power and through perserverance, may be all the more appealing and inspiring now. That doesn't mean that a reader who prefers this kind of story, is not empathic, or can't relate to people in distressing situations right now. For empathy can be a strain. We are not necessarily what we read.

    May I post a question to Steve Liskow? You write:

    "Long ago, I discovered that I couldn't really flesh out my own characters until I understood how and why they were hurting. All my series characters have scars from painful lessons they still remember. I like to think that helps readers relate to them, too."

    Though I concur that it's important to think through your characters, to understand them to a certain degree, I wonder what you would do if you used a controversial person like Donald Trump as a character. How would you go about describing him in a way so that readers will empathize, understand him, and relate to him but not necessarily agree with his actions)? I'm not trying to evoke a political discussion here, but empathy should work both (or all) ways, I think. Would that be possible for you, too?

  8. Anne - I agree we will (hopefully) continue to read many books, including Sherlock Holmes, because the classics are important. And some people will not be attracted to empathy - in life or in books.

    In answer to your question, "How would you go about describing him in a way so that readers will empathize, understand him, and relate to him but not necessarily agree with his actions" - my answer would be that of course the best books will put you in his shoes - as in the German "Weltanschauung (world view)" - to see his world. I think many villains will be like Trump.

    As for empathy for Trump - understanding their world does not mean agreeing. In psych we have studied the Nazis and I can assure you we do not do so to foster agreement. We do it to foster understanding and this has helped immensely in combatting them.


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