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 her characters.

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?

(photo source)

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Comment by Surviving the Draft on August 24, 2010 at 5:32pm
@Charlotte, thanks for the kind words. Sounds like you're having a terrific experience with your novel. It's exciting, isn't it, to see the art cause your own heart to grow.
Comment by Charlotte Watson Sherman on August 24, 2010 at 2:55pm
I really enjoy your blog, Tayari. In the novel I'm currently revising, I had to see how or why someone would forgive an abusive parent - whether it's the mother or father. I couldn't understand it, but I'm glad I was able to write my way through my personal abhorrence to get to a character's forgiveness.
Comment by Sin McKnight on August 22, 2010 at 10:56am
For me, its the opposite -- too empathetic. We write what we live and we feel what we live therefore we write what we feel. I think its my real life that helps me open up to my writerly empathy. For me, if I can feel it then i'm more able to express it. Its very difficult for someone to write thoroughly embedding all the necessary emotions about something they have not experience.
Comment by Surviving the Draft on August 22, 2010 at 9:31am
@Kathleen, your project sounds amazing. I hope you find a publisher for it soon. I love hearing that writing it helped heal you. We think a LOT about writing as a profession, but it's more than that. Thank you for sharing that story!
Comment by Kevin Camp on August 19, 2010 at 4:46pm
I tend to write about unsympathetic characters in the form of stylistic fragments more than conversation. I see them more through other characters, some of whom find them appealing. That's usually about as far as I dare get. As for empathy, I am reminded of what Thomas Jefferson said about the common man. He said that he admired them, from a distance.
Comment by Laura Molina on August 19, 2010 at 4:19pm
IMO, people who have been traumatized and survive become more empathetic. Trauma changes they way you think. If your empathy alerts you to someone who is in trouble or distress can you ignore their "negative energy"? Sometimes people act the way they do because they're naive, hyper-vigilant from trauma or they are high-functioning autistics and that's hard to sort them out from the real sociopaths among us. With age and experience comes wisdom.

The antagonist of my novel is a complete cad of a young man who gets a 19-years girl pregnant and bails! I see him as being more flawed than evil. At the end his guilt is his undoing. They say that revenge is "like drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies". What if you drank that poison, wished your nemesis a painful, slow death and then he does die? How can you be redeemed?
Comment by Kathleen Kern on August 19, 2010 at 8:07am
The working title is "Because the Angels," haven't succeeded in getting an agent or publisher, yet, though.
Comment by Leigh David on August 19, 2010 at 6:29am
@Kathleen..what is the novel's name with the homophobic pastor...
Comment by Kathleen Kern on August 19, 2010 at 6:19am
I wrote a story in college in featuring a man like my adulterous alienating father, my teacher said I wasn't really writing from his perspective; I was projecting what I thought his perspective was onto him. Glad it was never published. After I finished my 2nd novel, I was taking a walk, and began weeping for the sub-protagonist--a rigid homophobic pastor with limited social skills--and what he had gone through. When I gave it to my readers, I asked them if Otto was likable enough, and they all said they felt for him. And then I realized writing the novel had actually changed how I felt about my (non-homophobic) father.
Comment by Miriam Ferguson on August 18, 2010 at 11:02am
One of my charcters in my novel "Weaver" is Sadie and she is just outright nasty and I couldn't figure out why...this post has help me rethink what's really going on with her. She fits better now. I know her problem and cleary she's challenged. Empathize with...No! but I do understand...Thanks for the insight.

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