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.