It is the one concept that any great writer understands intimately. Grammar, syntax, style, plot, all crucial, but empathy trumps them all.

Writers can’t fake it. It’s something developed over time, with experience. Not writing experience. Life experience.

In the writing world, we often hear the phrase, ‘write what you know.’ The broadest sense of that phrase would nullify fiction. No fictionalist writes only about things of which they have personal knowledge. If they did, the result wouldn’t be fiction. If they did, there would be no such thing as science fiction or fantasy, no historical fiction, no murder mysteries, no Westerns, no fairy tales.

It’s probably true that the first stories were non-fiction–tales of the hunt, or of battle with enemy tribes. But we know early man had spiritual thoughts, ideas of things beyond their world. Myth would soon have followed reality, fiction would soon have followed myth.

Fiction, then, is nearly as old as human language, and fiction has endured because of empathy.

We often confuse empathy with sympathy. They are not the same thing. Sympathy is a feeling of sorrow or pity for the misfortunes of others. Empathy, though, is the ability to understand the feelings of others. Sympathy is impossible without empathy. It is not a writer’s job to make the reader sympathize. Instead, his responsibility is to create empathy. Done well, that empathy will create feelings of sympathy in the mind and heart of the reader, creating a human connection between a real reader and a fictional character.

That seems strange on the surface. But those connections we make with fictional characters when we read help us to make better, stronger connections with the real people around us. When we nurture empathy, we become more empathetic–and by extension, more sympathetic–toward all people, which makes for a better world.

This month’s stories lean toward the surreal and speculative, but each is a masterful portrait of the writerly ability to create empathy.