Drusilla Campbell on Empathy . . . and a Writing Challenge!

Drusilla Campbell is the author of Little Girl Gone (which you can begin reading for a limited time on Figment here), a fascinating novel about a troubled teen, Madora, who feels lonely and abandoned in the wake of her father’s death and her mother’s depression. In with the wrong crowd, she’s rescued by Willis: someone she thinks of as an angel, who offers the protection and love Madora so craves. But when Willis kidnaps a young pregnant girl, Madora slowly, painfully wakes up to his true character with the help of her adopted puppy, Foo, and the orphaned son of a rock star, Django. Below, Drusilla fills us in on how she makes an unlikable character like Willis someone for whom readers have a modicum of understanding.


We’ll also have a fun writing challenge (with prizes!) to help you make use of your new skills! Based on the idea of empathy and Drusilla’s advice about investigating a character’s childhood, write a 150-250 word character sketch of a child who will grow up to be an unlikable adult. The Fig mods will choose our favorite responses, and four winners have their stories featured on the Figment homepage. One of those responses will also be featured in the newsletter, and will receive a copy of Little Girl GoneTag your story CampbellLGG by 11:59p.m. on Friday, January 27 to enter! See the official rules here.

UPDATE: Congratulations to the following entries, which were selected by the Figmods to be featured on the homepage: ” Vivian,” ” Little Boy Blue: Little Boy Red,” ” Sophie Lovestall: The Doll Maker,” and “Mirror, mirror…“.  And congratulations to Steph A., whose entry, “The Fairest One of All,” was featured in the 1/31 newsletter.


EMPATHY: the ability to identify with and understand another’s situation, feelings and motives.

Think of the monsters of history: Lizzy Borden, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus for a handful of gold coins, Stalin. I believe that if we knew enough about their lives before they became infamous, we would find a point of empathy, however small. Empathy is our unique gift as human beings. It enables us to overcome revulsion and fear and see these monsters as human and, in some ways, like us. Our challenge as writers is to create paper men and women in whom readers can identify parts and pieces of themselves.

There is an old saying which I believe: as the twig is bent, so grows the tree. Childhood experiences count big time toward making us who we are as adults. I create childhoods for all my characters, childhoods full of specific experiences, challenges, and disappointments. All the highs and lows of a real childhood. I don’t write this stuff down. I develop it in my head, make up stories just like I did when I was a kid. So, if you drive past me on the freeway and you see I’m alone and talking like crazy, I’m probably not on my cell. I’m talking aloud to Willis or Madora or Django, asking how Madora felt when her father committed suicide and how Willis felt when his sister ran off.

In Little Girl Gone, Willis Brock is a nasty piece of work and you want to hope he never gets near your daughter. But his motives aren’t black and white, and a lot of what he does springs from a deep desire to be a really good man. To help the reader feel empathy for Willis, I wrote several short but vivid childhood sequences in which his mother and father and sister appear. We see Willis as a little kid bending this way and that, trying to make sense of his world. You have to feel for the kid.

We were all children once. We all know what it was like to be helpless in a world of grownups. It’s hard not to empathize with a child even if you know he grows up to be a mass murderer.


Don’t forget to write a 150-250 word character sketch based on Drusilla’s advice of a child who will grow up to be an unlikable adult. Four winners will have their stories featured on the Figment homepage, and one will be featured in the newsletter and win a copy of Little Girl Gone.

Don’t forget to tag your story CampbellLGG by 11:59p.m. on Friday, January 27. See the official rules here.

26 thoughts on “Drusilla Campbell on Empathy . . . and a Writing Challenge!

  1. NO!! HOW?! 150-200 words ONLY?!? It takes WAAAY longer than that to emphasize the changing moment of a child! I’ve written thousands of words about the past of my villian; it just isn’t possible!!

  2. Can we take real historical figures like Henry VIII? Or how about other famous fictitious characters like Iago from Othello? Great prompt!

  3. Can I use a character’s past if I plan on using him as an anti-hero in a series I plan on posting on this site in the near future?

  4. Did anyone else immediately think, “SNAPE!” when it was talking about how childhood experiences build empathy and make a character deeper and less hated? LOL 🙂

  5. Drat, I missed this. I always loved the villains in stories, wondered what makes them tick. Just as a side note, Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, not a handful of gold.

  6. The prompt says “character sketch.” Could I write a scene in which the character’s personality is displayed and some of her future traits come to light, instead of a basic description?

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