Writing Reflections: My Shoes are too Small, My Head is too Big
Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!
On Fitting into a Character’s Shoes
As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I love best about writing is the fact that it forces you to really empathise with your characters – at least, if you want to write something well. In general, this means stepping outside of yourself and frequently outside of your comfort zone, as the people you’re writing about won’t necessarily be like you, your friends, your family, or, in fact, anybody you know in real life at all.
There is an old writing canard that urges writers to “write what we know,” and to a certain extent that is good advice. In my opinion, however, people are too apt to take it literally. “Oh,” says the scientist. “I’ll write about a scientist who discovers the cure for cancer.” Or, “Oh,” says the blogger. “I’ll give my main character a book review blog…”
Knowing a great deal about a subject, particularly if it is important to the plot, is definitely a good thing, as it can give your novel a sense of grounding that it might not otherwise have. Likewise, it makes it easier for you to write the character with attention to detail and realism: after all, he or she closely resembles yourself in an important way. Have you ever noticed how many protagonists are writers? Quite a few, right? And that’s the problem. In my own writing, at least, I’ve found that writing characters who are too close to home tends to make me sloppy. I stop asking myself about how that specific character would respond to that situation, and the lines between them and me begin to blur a little too much. It is embarrassingly easy to spot those pieces of myself, those autobiographical fragments, wherever they pop up in the text.
In addition, I have to confess to some mostly-joking contemplation in the past as to how crime writers go about writing about crime novels if they have never, actually, (for example) murdered someone; if writers write what they know, then ought we to go around arresting these people for dozens of unsolved crimes? Obviously not. How, then, does one apply “write what you know” in a useful way?
For myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that “writing what you know” isn’t actually talking about things like studying, blogging, reading or the like. Rather, it is referring not to the subjects but to the content of what you write. For example, suppose in my current project I have a character whose lover is cheating on her, and she finds out. I have never personally had this experience. However, I do know what it’s like to be betrayed, so, in order to write this situation, I will look to what I know about betrayal to understand how my character is feeling and how she might react. In this way, I can expand my “knowledge” to situations I technically know nothing about. I can fit into my character’s shoes.
I read somewhere once that the best writing is always a little uncomfortable – both to write, and to read. This can be particularly true if, say, you find yourself forced to step inside the mind and motivations of a murderer, as with crime fiction, or even just someone you completely dislike or disagree with. Then the shoes pinch, the clothes feel uncomfortable, and you worry – what must people think of me for writing this? What kind of person am I for reading this? Or even just, I’m totally not qualified to be writing this, am I? But personally I think that if you’re human, you can write anything, as long as you remember what size shoes you’re wearing (and you have the skill to pull it off, I suppose, but that’s another kettle of fish pair of shoes altogether).
Nobody can really know how something feels to someone else, even if they have experienced the same thing in identical circumstances, because different people feel and react differently. And that applies whether you’re male, female, tall, short, black, white, straight, gay or anything in between. Thus in order to empathise with someone, even on a daily basis, we are required to use our imaginations and draw from our own experience. In a way, writing is just like having a conversation with a friend and trying to see their point of view. Not everyone does it (we’ve all read books where the characters were just too perfect, or obvious author facsimiles), and not everyone does to the same degree, but at the end of the day, I think that’s what makes both reading and writing so worthwhile; they can help challenge you to grow as a person and give you insight into all the different corners of the human psyche. As Elizabeth Knox puts it in The Vintner’s Luck: “I read to learn what people think. Not about each other, but about themselves.”