Novels are amalgams. Your experiences. Your friends’ memories. Stuff you’ve read. Stuff you’ve heard about. Be open to it all. Mash up the different elements. The real secret of the secret sauce of novel-writing is that no one knows what goes into it.
Empathy has its drawbacks, especially when reading the news, but on the plus side, I think it helps me create deeper characters. The secret for creating unforgettable characters is to give them impossible choices.