Tayari Jones discovers that to get to the heart of the story, you have to get to the heart of all your characters--even the ones you don’t like.
As a professor of creative writing and also the facilitator of many workshops, I have learned that sometimes the problem with a story is a personal problem
, not a writerly problem
. For example, a person who relies too heavily on dialogue-- that's a writerly problem. But often when the characters are stiff and undeveloped, that can indicate a personal problem.
A personal problem is rooted in the writer's way of moving through the world. There are many personality quirks that can spoil the writing, but today, I want to talk about empathy, or a lack thereof.
Writers are often motivated by something/someone that angers, irritates, or appalls them. Some people write to get even with a person who has hurt them, or to expose some sort of destructive force in their community. These subjects could be anything from the mean girl who picked on you when you were ten to the evil dude that owns a payday loan company on the corner. If your story is going to be any good, you are going to have to get past that triggering emotion.
I can sometimes tell from just from a conversation whether a writer will have this problem with her work. Red flags are: "I just don't see why she did that..." Or, "Any fool could tell that wasn't going to work..." Almost any sentence about another person that begins with "I just can't understand..." exposes the sort of emotional flatness that may show up in the work.
So how to break through?
I like to write journal entries in the voices of my characters.
I sometimes even do it for people who have hurt me deeply in real life. The challenge is that you have to discover something new about the person or character.
If your exercise reveals only what you came to the page with in the first place, then you have not tapped into the empathy you are going to need to write the story you want to write. You really to have to want to understand that person, which means you may have to let go of that anger.
In my forthcoming novel, The Silver Girl
, one of the major characters is a bigamist named James. You can imagine the pain this causes everyone else in the story. Still, I had get next to James and really see his side of things.
One of the tricks I employed was to think how it could have been worse. So: in the novel he has a daughter whom he sees only once a week and constantly reminds her that she is just his #2 daughter. So then I said, well, it would be even worse if he was not in his daughter's life, denied paternity, did not support her in any way. Okay, once I had that together, I asked myself, why didn't he do the really ugly thing
? Then, I was able to tap into the part of him that was trying to adhere to some sort of moral code, the part of him that had an understanding of responsibility and family. When I came to that, he stopped being a cardboard cut-out and became flesh.
The main personal problem I had to get over was the fear that I would be accused of making excuses for men, that by seeing his side of things I was somehow betraying my characters or even women all over the world. But at the end of the day, I decided that we read to stretch and grow and that we write for the same reason. Look closely at the photo that I’ve chosen to illustrate this post. Look closely and you'll see that one of those rocks is a heart. The everyday miracle quality of this image seemed fitting with the magic of the way that the writer must find the heart of all
I was wondering SheWriters, has writing ever helped you get close to a type of character that you wouldn’t ordinarily understand, let alone empathize with? Has your writerly empathy helped you be more open in your real life?