Thursday, October 29, 2015

Writing empathy

I'm a six-foot-one, straight, white male, who 30 pounds ago was a college athlete, and am a guy who usually votes Democrat. The character I write is a female, who is ultra fit, also straight, and is a moderate; and she'd vote for whoever offers the best border-security policy. We don't have much in common, other than we both notice the nuances and the situational ethics involved in the criminal justice system.

Because of these differences, some of the nicest compliments I receive are from readers who say, "I assumed you were a female," when they come to a signing. Or, "How do you write the dating scenes from Peyton's perspective?" If I don't have time to really elaborate, I have a go-to response, something I hope is funny: "I live with a wife, two teenage daughters, a first-grade daughter, and am the dorm parent to 55 other girls. Hell, even my dog is a female." Sometimes, this draws a chuckle.

Jokes aside, though, empathy is the #1 attribute a writer must possess. You need to be able to stand in another's shoes and walk the proverbial mile. Especially in our genre. Michael Connelly wrote in his brilliant essay "The Mystery of Mystery Writing": "When it comes to the mystery novel the writer must be inclined to write what he or she does not know and never wants to."

That can be a frightening thought. Writers in our genre step into many roles that challenge us and our beliefs. For two hours a day, I'm an actor, playing the part of a 35-year-old single mom. I enjoy the challenge. And, despite Connelly's statement, I want to know Peyton's worldview and political beliefs. Do I need to be like Peyton Cote to write her well? No. Do I need to understand her to write her well? By way of an answer, Aristotle said, The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. I understand Peyton well enough.

At a time when empathy might be the most important skill one can possess, it's good that I learn a lot by thinking as Peyton would think. Our views on border and amnesty laws, for instance, certainly differ.

In the end, my moderate character teaches me a lot and challenges my views.


Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I'm happy to read this positive post about writing characters who challenge our views. I try to incorporate other points of views into my books -- generally voiced by characters other than my two female protagonists. But now I'll need to view the world from the perspective of my antagonist in my historical thriller because he shares POV with my protagonist. It should be interesting to see how far I can stretch my empathy. .

Charlotte Hinger said...

John, I loved this post. I've always been surprised by the people I hadn't planned on who show up for my books