Why Narcissists Make Terrible Storytellers

In a landmark 2006 study, researchers at the Univ. of Toronto found that avid fiction-readers scored higher on tests measuring empathy than those who prefered nonfiction.

"While frequent readers are often stereotyped as socially awkward," concluded the study, "this may only be true of non-fiction readers and not readers of fiction. Comprehending characters in a narrative fiction appears to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world, while the comprehension of expository non-fiction shares no such parallels. Frequent fiction readers may thus bolster or maintain their social abilities unlike frequent readers of non-fiction."

These findings mirror something I've noticed in my years leading fiction-writing workshops: Narcissists make terrible storytellers.

Reading a novel requires that the reader be able to experience a story vicariously through its characters, a feat of compassion that is all but impossible if a person has a limited capacity for empathy, as is the case with clinical narcissists, or a complete lack of it, as is true of clinical sociopaths.

In spite of this, writing workshops are clogged with narcissists - because they believe, perhaps more than any other people, that everyone wants to hear what they have to say. I can spot them right away through their first writing samples. Their characters are one-dimensional, lack emotional depth, complexity or insights, and are completely tone-deaf to the needs of the other characters or reader. The narcissistic writer is a similar creature to the characters they create, notably bombastic and domineering in class, even insulting, self-absorbed and reluctant to accept any criticism. They have not come to learn; they have come to be admired.

Unfortunately for them, a good fiction writer, like a fiction reader, must have profound empathy for other human beings. They must have empathy for their characters to the point that they become, for a moment, those characters. They must possess an understanding of the many ways different personalities function and interact with one another, or the story will be dull and meaningless. Narcissists have difficulty doing any of this, because their psychological makeup is limited to a story and audience of one - themselves, and no matter how hard they try, without a lot of coaching, they will only ever write the same predictable, uninteresting story of themselves. It is not unusual to have narcissistic writers in a fiction workshop who rarely or never read fiction themselves, viewing it as frivolous or boring unless it is their story, which they seem to think will be the most incredible story anyone has ever read. (It's not.)

Novel-writing also demands an additional layer of empathy - for your reader. A good novelist will show, not tell, a story. This means allowing the reader the exquisite pleasure of drawing their own conclusions by connecting the dots you lay out for them. The best writers build a rich world full of interesting people and events, then get out of the way. Narcissists, who come to writing fiction mostly as yet one more way to generate what they believe will be admiration for themselves, fail miserably at showing, but are great at telling.

Many writing programs emphasize the technical aspects of storytelling, but far too few explore ways to improve a writer's ability to empathize. I make it a point in every workshop I teach, to give all participants, regardless of their natural empathic abilities, exercises to help them develop compassion for themselves, for one another and, finally, for their characters, along with the technical pointers. I've gotten excellent work out of people by adding this to my courses.

Many narcissistic writers, so long as they are not total sociopaths, improve with these techniques - though they usually remain somewhat disabled by their natural disinterest in others. Writers who are already naturally empathic, however, soar with this approach.

Almost anyone can be taught to write a complete sentence or map out a plot; but only those with highly-developed empathy and compassion for their fellow human beings will rise to the top to become great storytellers.

Want to learn how to become a better storyteller? Dream of writing a novel? Please join me in my next writing workshop with the San Francisco Creative Writing Institute.

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