Worldbuilding Wednesday: Empathy In Strange Places

Took a trip to the museum today to see an exhibit on Pompeii. I came away with a sense of how like us the people of the ancient Roman empire truly were. They had plumbing, fast food and take-out (in containers with ads on them, even!), and like us, they had a great cultural pastime of drawing dicks on things (and sadly, I do not have pictures because no flash photography and my camera takes crappy photos in dim light).

Oddly enough, it was the articles with the dicks on them that made me empathize most with the people of ancient Pompeii. For some reason, the fact that someone thought it was funny enough or significant enough to want their message to the world to be a dick with feet on an oil lamp or piece of wall graffiti, and two thousand years later, someone (me) found that dick with feet funny and significant. You can’t force that kind of connection through the ages.

So when we rounded the corner into the hushed and respectful gallery where the plaster casts taken from the actual bodies of the excavated dead were on display, that long-ago natural disaster’s effects hit me almost as hard as any modern one. I didn’t just see bodies of long-deceased strangers. I saw the bodies of people who laughed and loved and made dick jokes.

So why did clay willies make a connection for me more than the lofty fictionalizations in made-for-TV movies? Because bawdy humor tends to be one of the “lowest” forms of humor, meaning it’s accessible to the largest portion of the population. No matter what language you speak, what social class you come from, or what culture you might have grown up in, you know what a dick looks like, and the idea of putting legs or wings on one is just irresistibly funny. It speaks to our crude instincts, and our species’ insecurities (you’d be hard-pressed to find a culture that doesn’t have some form or variant of Smilin’ Bob pills, treatments, spells, prayers, ointments, or good luck get-it-up charms).

One of the brilliant themes of the exhibit was not only the dangly bits, but the household elements present in many of the groupings. The usual stuff of interest to schoolkids like the shape of amphorae, coins of the realm, and pieces of architecture were interspersed with portable ovens and kitchen utensils. The minutiae of day-to-day life abandoned by residents who escaped or perished combined with the interpretive displays to create a portrait of people who not only told dick jokes, but told them in bars and fast-food joints of the day. Who held cook-outs and bought food packaged in jars with advertising slogans painted on them. And people who died holding the hands of their loved ones or huddled together so they wouldn’t be alone.

You never know what will reach out to you through history, or through fiction, to create a connection. You never know what will reach out to a reader from your characters to connect with them (and chances are, it won’t be what you thought it would be). Take the time to create empathic facets of your characters by showing their humanity in its most undiluted forms. In the midst of the heroic, the larger-than-life, the extraordinary, make your characters connectable with glimpses of the simple human in all of us.

Go ahead. Make a dick joke.


My short contemporary romantic comedy, Forever Material, is about a Dating Diva who finds the right kind of Mr. Wrong. It’s on Summer Sale for $3.49 at the major retailers. There may be one or two dick jokes in it.

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She’s absolutely sure he’s not the marrying kind…

He’s absolutely sure she’s right…

But he’s still going to prove her wrong.

Athena Grayson Written by:

Space Opera with Sizzle | Sorcery with Spice | Fun Fantasy with Feels


  1. August 2, 2012

    Great post, Athena! I saw a Pompeii exhibit in NYC last year (probably the same one you saw) and it hit me the same way. I’d been to Pompeii itself years ago, but most of the casts and artifacts aren’t at the site, so the emotional impact isn’t quite as great. It fascinates me how easily we can empathize with people through humor. Humor makes people real and relatable. I swear about half of my Facebook newsfeed is funny posts, mostly LOLCats. Because who doesn’t love silly pet stuff? Or dicks with feet.

  2. August 2, 2012

    I think it is the same one, Dana. It’s making the rounds to all the museums, LOL.

    When I traveled to Egypt, we visited Hatshepsut’s temple. She was one of only two or three female Pharaohs, and probably the most powerful if not the most famous (that one falls to Cleopatra VII). On the side of the temple, in an out-of-the-way place, there’s a little, crude drawing of people bumping uglies (supposedly the queen and her chief advisor who, by many accounts, had a thing going).

    Even with the stringent geometry Egyptian art carried, someone still managed to convey a very human dick joke. And given how long the temple stood and how easy it is to find it, someone (or many someones) saw fit to leave it there for future generations to snerk over.

    People haven’t changed much. 🙂

    Thanks for stopping by and giggling with me!

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