Short answer: both.
But now let me get into each one respectively and how they can both be applied to your writing for incredible results and character insights!
Described as the identification with or understanding of thoughts, feelings, or emotional state of another person (at least according to my word hippo app – my most favorite of apps! I mean its icon is a pink hippo for god’s sake, what’s not to love?). ergo your characters.
Now I’ve have never been one for “Method Acting”, for the get all up in your own feels as a way to understand your characters. Personally I’ve always approached acting and performing as having nothing to do with me! Actors are the vehicles for the characters that they are interpreting, that’s what makes them such a pivotal part in the translation of story. They can totally enhance a telling through their understanding of a character.
Different eyes perceive different things, in layered story telling this is vital. What one person interprets can blow the lid off of something someone else might have read into the same.
Motive, meaning, intention these things are all subjective! But the actor, the reader has to be invoking the essence of the writers words, they have to be reading between the lines of subtext written down not just deciding what it means. It is an intricate dance but one worth the time it takes to learn the steps.
Using your own experiences to recall that sad moment when your dog died so that you can bring “April’s” upset to life. Nope, no good, it will only make you cry it wont make you feel and certainly wont make the audience only see a sad looking person up on the screen not the invocation of what it represents and all that it means in that specific moment and how it connects to the story as a whole.
You have to stand back and truly look at your characters. You have to look at the story through their eyes, you have to experience the situation from their perspective and drive it all forward there from.
Empathy stops a little short, but it can add you as a writer by bringing you closer to your character by connecting you to their heart, good, bad, ugly or assholey.
This is where empathy will truly aid a writer. As both the reader and creator you have to be able to see from a 360* perspective. People might end up hating this character, the “perfect villain” but what makes them well rounded, what makes them different then any other fairy tale baddie? What makes them human? Because at the end of then day every Tom, Dick and asshole is a human.
They are just as real as you and me, they feel – perhaps in an assholey way – just like we do. So you have to empathize with their part of the story in order to truly add that extra leverage to their motivation. That extra DAMN-SNAP to their insinuation.
Empathy is one thing, I have protested this for some time when it comes to basic interaction, on can feel for another and that’s all well and good, they can feel bad because they know exactly how you feel, BUT…a lot of good that does anyone!
Which brings us to Emotional Intelligence:
Understanding means nothing without proper application. You can recall a time you were sad in order to invoke the right amount of feeling and description in your writing or performance but what good is understanding without compassion, without the ability to read the situation for what it is and provide what is necessary? Empathy in general can be more selfish in application when used just by itself, it can be one sided. That’s why I feel being empathetic alone wont do you much good when it comes to your art.
Emotional intelligence is what will allow you to put yourself aside and say, hey now, what would this person being feeling? I know what I might feel, but what makes them different?
By being empathetic in an emotionally intelligent way to your characters, by feeling what they would feel, seeing and understanding what provokes and motivates their feeling actions and reactions you add the depth of humanity that you know I am oh so found of! 😉
You layer everything they for then in an air of humanity that blurs the lines of convention, of the simplistic, one dimensional of the black and white. Emotions are ambiguous when being seen from the outside therefore you have to ground them in the proper motivation and drive to truly hit home with the impact.
As a writer if you are able to look at human interaction and emotion subjectively but from an empathic and emotionally intelligent way you will be open to a world of the multi dimensional!
And who doesn’t want that?