This article examines a small, empathy-deficient subset of the writing community. However, the advice given can help anyone who wants to ensure that their characters possess depth and realism.
Have you ever read a book where the protagonist, no matter who he’s supposed to be, sounds like an old conservative white guy? And you think, Ok, he’s not very relatable. In fact, he’s kind of a jackass. But maybe this character’s going to learn something and grow into a better person as the story progresses.
Then you realize that the plucky young Latina sidekick also sounds like an old conservative guy. And so does the working-class Joe who helps them escape from the antagonist. And the down-on-her luck single mother at the diner who waits on them. And their cab driver… And you start to feel like, instead of writing a flawed protagonist, the author is maybe only capable of writing one type of character. And that character is very flawed indeed.
The problem is, the author doesn’t realize it because (surprise twist) he’s an old conservative white guy.
This isn’t the only demographic guilty of struggling to step outside their own frame of reference. I’ve read various flavors of fiction where all the author’s heroines/heroes had nearly identical personalities.
For example: I can forgive the woman from the pampered upper-middle class family being scared of the dark, irrationally afraid of being jumped by “thugs,” and woefully unable to change a tire. She’s probably lived in a gated community her entire life and always had AAA there to provide roadside assistance.
Unfortunately, the woman who grew up in a series of foster homes has the same hang-ups. And so does the one who comes from a single-parent home in a rough neighborhood. And suddenly I have the feeling that I’m not reading about a new character at all, but the author’s avatar with slightly different hair.
This lack of empathy –an inability to put themselves in another person’s shoes, if you will– can affect authors from any background. A good indication that the author you’re reading has this affliction is that all the characters sound and react in suspiciously similar ways, even though one would expect their backgrounds and personalities to cause them to have vastly different reactions.
There’s good news, though. It’s actually not hard to avoid falling victim to this affliction.
Empathy Is Key
To write realistic characters, you must have some degree of empathy and the ability to consider things from points of view other than your own. Don’t assume that what you see on the news or hear from talk show hosts represents an accurate or well-rounded view of people’s existence.
Talk to people from other demographics and get to know them. What are their goals in life? What are their fears? And this should go without saying, but don’t treat them like they’re a research project. Research is not your end goal; widening your realm of experience until you can empathize with people from other backgrounds is.
This should also go without saying, but don’t turn your new friends into characters. I know it might be tempting– they’re kind, quirky, and have shown you a world you never realized existed– but for the love of all that is holy, don’t write real people into your book! One, it’s lazy. Two, it opens you up to a whole array of nasty consequences, including being sued for defamation. Just don’t do it.
Being able to step outside your own frame of reference and see the world from other points of view is essential to being a good author. It will give your characters depth and realism, and can even help you write realistic antagonists.
If, at the end of the day, you still find it insurmountably challenging to see things from other peoples’ perspectives, I suggest putting writing aside for a while and stepping outside your comfort zone. Travel. Meet and talk to new people. Learn how to listen. Set aside your preconceptions, and view the world from a neutral point of view. It’ll make you a better writer, I promise. If nothing else, it will hopefully make you a better person.