One of my online writing groups asked what advice we’d give to the next generation of writers. I supplied this:
Learn to think others’ thoughts. Learn to put them on and take them off again. This develops compassion.
But more than that, it’s the writer’s version of stereoscopic vision: you can’t write realistically until you can step behind someone else’s eyes and see their world exactly the way they do, and then step back out again to see your own vision. The best writers can see both, with all their subtle differences, at the same time.
Stereoscopic vision is how we have depth perception; each eye sees an image subtly different from the other, and it’s how the brain integrates those differences which tells us which objects are further away than others. It’s the same in writing: respecting the differences between different characters’ world views is what will give your writing depth.
In more recent public discourse in America, what we see is the lack of empathy, the inability to look out through the other side’s eyes in order to understand the world as they do. It’s short-sighted, and in some respects it guarantees that every public debate is going to end at an impasse. There will be no more political compromise, no dialogue, no mutually acceptable solutions. You are, you will be told, wrong. Or else you will be told you are entirely right. The strongest power wins.
And as we all know, when one side wins, everybody loses. Especially in families, especially between friends, especially in small communities.
When writing, it is essential to be able to look out your characters’ eyes and understand why they believe what they believe. It is not enough that your villain wants to take over the world. You must be able to tell us why. Moreover, when you’re writing from his perspective, it is imperative that you the author also believe he is right. Otherwise your fiction comes across as preachy and message-driven, and your character will not make logical choices.
Then once you’re out of the scene, you can return again to yourself. That means knowing yourself enough to be secure.
Stereoscopic writer vision requires listening to people with whom you violently disagree and learning why they believe what they do. You can’t just mimic their words: you need to be able to put on that opinion and then shed it again.
Test everything, says the Bible. Keep what is good.
Learn everything, I’m telling you. Keep what is good for yourself, but don’t be afraid to share everything with the people you’re creating. If they have a cause, make it a cause worth believing.
No one wakes up and says “I’ll become an arch-villain today.” But many wake up and say, “I’m going to make it a better world, no matter what I have to do in order to make it that way.”
Give us different people to read about. Give us differences, and differences give us depth.
That reminds me of Stephen Covey’s demonstration of people actually listening to each other. He was presenting at a university. He chose an emotion-laden topic and two people who were firmly on opposite sides, then stayed with them until each was satisfied that the other could explain her viewpoint. Not agree with the viewpoint, just explain it to the owner’s satisfaction.
It broke down misconceptions, extreme views and straw men. They learned that the person on the other side of the stand wasn’t evil. The the common ground was large enough to stand on, and possibly even build something useful on.
We should give the same advice to the new generation of writers that all have had. Except perhaps that we might need to express it in a form they can understand. Dear next generation of writers:
There’s a book by Bill Bishop call The Big Sort. It is subtitled “Why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart”.
It must be so difficult to live within such a mass as the USA. People are only able to deal with so much at once. If the natural community of a person is about 150 (the village), then it is easy to see how you can sink into a village of people who are all exactly the same.
It is perfectly obvious from the outside that the social basis of the USA is gang warfare. It is a degeneration of the primacy of the individual. Individual people get uncertain in facing life, so form gangs to defend themselves.
With a society based this way it is almost impossible to move in any direction at all. The rest of us all get to watch it on TV. Quite entertaining, in a grim sort of way.