Writing to Understand

The ‘Other’ has been in the news a lot recently. It seems that fear of the Other, or of becoming the Other, has driven some of the most momentous political events of our times – not least the unstoppable rise of a ‘reality TV’ star to president-elect of the most powerful country in the free world.

The Other, of course, is often the writer; or the perspective represented by the writer. Making this perspective believable and engaging calls for one of the most valuable tools in the writer’s toolkit – empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Trying to achieve this – to tell someone’s story – is what motivates me to write.

I don’t like all my characters: some aren’t very likeable. Yet I feel a connection to each one. Sometimes I imagine what would happen if they wandered out of their stories and into my kitchen, and parked themselves at the table – a bit like reading one of those ‘who would you invite to your dream dinner party’ answers. In the case of many – if not all – of my characters the dinner party would soon become a nightmare. We have a strange relationship: I can’t work out if they are somehow part of me; or are they just themselves? But each one has surprised me with his or her view of the world.

I’ve always struggled with the idea that a writer can ‘create’ a character. I was aghast once when a tutor told me to work out what I needed for my story, and make up a character to fit that. To me, characters emerge organically on the page – the angle of a shoulder; a lock of hair; a polished shoe, lamplight reflected in the leather. Bit by bit, they reveal something of their lives. But it can take a while.

In her brilliant book, Searching for the Secret River, about the process of writing her novel of the same name, Kate Grenville admits that it was only after circling her protagonist, Solomon Wiseman, and seeing him come in and out of focus, that ‘I could ask myself cold-bloodedly, What is [his] function in the story?’ But it still ‘felt a little disloyal to step back from my personal relationship with him, as if I was turning my back on a family member I’d only just discovered’. I know that feeling.

I recently had the pleasure of leading a workshop for Creative Writing A level students – some of the lucky few still able to study the subject before it disappears from the curriculum. And I learned from them: one of the exercises we tried was building a character, from the colour of their eyes to the contents of their pocket. (Having to use the ugly pronoun ‘their’ – so as not to identify a gender – was a small price to pay for creativity). It was fascinating to see who emerged. Children, babies, women and men of all ages came to life in front of us as we thought about the stories they brought with them. The students produced exciting work. It was inspiring to hear their interest in – and empathy for – these imaginary people’s lives.

Creating empathy must be one of the most valuable aspects of writing. In an increasingly fractured and angry world, taking the time to imagine the Other’s point of view is a generous and human act: a vital ability. We lose it at our peril.


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