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Writing What You Don’t Believe

Photo “face time-2” by Albyn Davis

No, this isn’t about writing dishonestly. Quite the contrary.

I’m returning to a topic I’ve touched on before, but with a different slant this time around. Please bear with me.

We live in an era of such extreme social and political division that if often seems tensions cannot resolve without matters coming to blows—or blood. The increasing number of mass shootings underscores this point, as does online acrimony and the testimony of virtually every retiring senator, regardless of party, that something is broken in our current political culture.

Writers are not in the division biz. We’re in the understanding biz. Every book in some sense attempts to address a truth that the writer felt was previously overlooked, undervalued, or misunderstood.

Truth, though, is a tricky critter. It conjures analogies to greased pigs and invisible songbirds.

Let me lay my cards on the table: I do not believe truth exists objectively, like this desk in front of me or the moon. I’m schooled in this position by a long line of American Pragmatists, most notably William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty.

James famously said, “What’s true is what works,” and earned the eternal scorn of European philosophers whose belief in truth was very much grounded in Platonic and Kantian idealism and mathematical certainty.

But James’s point was really quite profound. He was implicitly asking: How do we know something is true? And his response was: When we use it, we tend to be more successful than not.

So when I say a book—and for our purposes here, I mean a work of fiction—attempts to address a truth previously overlooked, undervalued, or misunderstood, what I mean is that the writer, in posing the crucial story question, What if…? in some way hopes to show that certain ways of acting in the world—whether believed to be conventionally “right” or “wrong”— achieve their desired ends or don’t.

Does courage always win the day? Honesty? Love? Faith? Family? Or are we better off embracing skepticism, enlightened (or naked) self-interest, moral flexibility, violence, power? Is there a middle ground? If so, who does it favor? Do we, as novelists, even have to decide? Or is our job to show how all of these inclinations collide and interact and contaminate each other in the endless scrum known as human life?

Milan Kundera, in The Art of the Novel, refers to “the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood…the wisdom of the novel.”

Fair enough. But how do I honestly go about creating and portraying characters whose beliefs are not just different from mine, but utterly repellent to me?

One of the most frequent criticisms leveled at the otherwise widely praised All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was how one-dimensional its Nazi characters were. I don’t mean to cast stones at Doerr—I have been guilty of this fault myself, and deserve to be called on it. It’s an open question on whether it reflects a lack of moral honesty, a lack of empathy, or plain old fashioned laziness, but it’s not just a technique issue.

Sometimes, sure, for the sake of enhancing conflict or tension, we seek to accentuate the differences between characters, especially those in an adversarial relationship, so that the battle between them reaches the heightened pitch that readers want.

But are we really slaves to reader expectations? Let me invoke what Stephen James refers to as the Reader’s Paradox: Readers always want to be able to predict where the story is going. And they always want to be wrong.

So, no, we are not slaves to reader expectations. We are in fact obligated to defy those expectations in rewarding ways.

The issue isn’t whether we need to make our Nazis or slave traders or cheating spouses consummate villains for the sake of dramatic tension. Rather, it’s whether we can bring ourselves to understand why the Nazis or the slave traders or the cheating spouses believed what they believed, felt what they felt, and acted as they acted, without sacrificing tension.

Like I said, we’re in the understanding business. But mere intellectual understanding won’t take us far enough in the “fascinating imaginative realm” of the novel. We have to engage our hearts, not just our minds. We have to empathize with those Nazis, slave traders, cheaters. We have to understand, as the saying goes, that they are the heroes of their own narrative.

Is that even possible in every instance? How do I even begin to contemplate embracing the mindset of a torturer, a child molester, a rapist—and why should I try?

I’ll answer the last question first: Because we’re artists, not jurors. If that doesn’t suit you, there are plenty of other lines of work.

I’m not saying it’s easy understanding—better yet, empathizing with—people whose view of the world, how it works, and how others should be treated, is drastically different than mine. I know it’s not easy. If it were, there would be no need to write this post.

Let me once again lay my cards on the table: Although I accept that most moral conflict one encounters in stories breaks down to self-interest vs. concern for others—the selfish vs. the selfless, in simple terms—I think the real evil in human conduct lies with neither of those positions categorically. The real evil is objectification.

When you decide that another human being is unworthy of being thought of as anything other than a this or a that—libtard, racist, cluck, sexist, deplorable, elitist—you are trying to cut off any further recognition of the merit not just of what that person has to say but who they are. This is cowardice juiced up on spite.

For writers, it’s also poison.

The same holds true for any label you decide to slap on a character: narcissist, weakling, fascist, criminal. This diminishes the character to make life easier for the writer.

Sure, once upon a time, when writers were in the thrall of characters along the lines of Theophrastus’s moral types—the flatterer, the newsmonger, the gossip, the cuckold, etc.—characters were reduced to this sort of imaginative straitjacket. What they did arose from what type of person they were. The were immutable types.

Renaissance humanism began to chip away at that kind of over-simplification (except in comedy and satire), to the point that today what we expect are characters who resemble live human beings. And live human beings are not objects. They are complex, contradictory, capable of change.

Objectification also fails the dramatic tension test. Although it is true we amplify tension by creating a Unity of Opposites, as Lajos Egri described it in The Art of Dramatic Writing—a situation where two characters are competing for the same thing: the loved one, the money, recognition, dominance, victory—that does not preclude us from being able to justify both of their positions.

Nor does it diminish the stakes if I can see that each adversary has a legitimate stake in the result. I simply need to understand that their positions are mutually incompatible—in a contest between them, only one can truly prevail.

To quote another wise author who wrote an exemplary writing guide, Oakley Hall in The Art and Craft of Novel Writing notes that the most compelling drama always pitches Good vs. Good. When we can understand the legitimacy of both positions we become far more invested in the contest, because we know one of them must lose, and we understand the value of what that loss will mean.

To do this effectively as writers, we need to see the world through the characters’ eyes, not merely our own, even when this means empathizing with positions or behavior we ourselves find repellent.

Why? It’s the job.

Things to consider when you go about this imaginative exercise include:

  • What cultural influences—family, faith, friendship, education, regional singularities (food, music, pastimes)—have shaped the individual’s understanding of what’s valuable in the world?
  • To what extent did the character embrace those culturally-inculcated values? To what extent did she question, reject, or rebel against them?
  • State the individual’s values explicitly: what does she consider virtues? What are vices? What makes someone a good person? What makes someone evil? What gives life meaning? What crushes the human spirit?
  • What outside forces acted against those values in the character’s life? How did the character respond?
  • How did she view the other side—how dangerous, insidious, untrustworthy were they?
  • Did anything happen in the individual’s life to make the other side seem even more dangerous, insidious, untrustworthy?
  • Specifically identify who the character now considers heroic, noble, strong, lovable?
  • Specifically identify who the character now considers to be criminal, corrupt, weak, unworthy.
  • How are what the character considers virtues reflected in people she loves? How are what she considers evil reflected in people she mistrusts, avoids, hates?
  • Who had power in the character’s world? Who didn’t? Why? Which side was the character on? How has that influenced her values?
  • Who got what they wanted in the character’s world? Who didn’t? Why?
  • Who is the character’s “tribe”—the social circle in which she feels most accepted? Has anything happened in the individual’s life to strengthen or weaken her bond to this tribe? What would she have to do to get kicked out of the tribe? Has she ever considered it? Will she consider it in the course of your story?
  • From the character’s values and his tribe, construct what you would call the way of life she seeks to recover, maintain, create, or defend. How does she want the world to be? How do people behave–in peaceful harmony? Bare-knuckle freedom? Military discipline? Strict obedience to the elders or the law? Who are the idols of that way of life? Who are the enemies? Who are the traitors?

I can’t recommend strongly enough doing this kind of backstory exploration through scenes. Don’t just answer the questions—imagine the incident that best reveals the answer.

Finally, as one last exercise, compare this character’s values not just with those of the other characters in your story–compare them to your own? How do your own values measure up now? How would you make your own case against the values of this character who seems to stand for things you find insupportable? Could you win an argument with them? Would an argument, let alone a discussion, even be possible? How does that make you feel? How might that make your characters feel? How might it make your readers feel?

Although this is a good first step, I’m a firm believer in exposing oneself to the opinions and the personal biographies of people who represent a distinctly different world view from your own. If you’re an atheist, read C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton or Reinhold Niebuhr. If you’re a believer, read Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins or Albert Camus. If you’re a liberal, read a conservative like Thomas Sowell or Jonathan Schoenwald. If you’re a conservative, read a liberal like Richard Rorty or Garry Wills. If you’re white, read writers of color; if you’re a man, read women; and vice versa.

I’d also recommend George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. It does a creditable job of identifying the core values and metaphors that inspire liberalism and conservatism. Once one recognizes that one’s political opponents are coming from a position of values, not spleen or mendacity, it’s much easier to understand where they’re coming from—and to create and develop characters who hold positions vastly different from one’s own.

None of which is to say every character you write should, down deep, possess a heart of gold. The Nazi will still believe in the superiority of the Arian race, the slave trader in the sub-human nature of the slaves he buys and sells, the cheater in his right to betray his spouse. It will be in the development of the internal moral argument that the character uses to justify that behavior that you will escape the sin of objectification, and instead see him as something more than a this or a that.

What difficulties have you experienced in justifying the world view character who views the world much differently than you? How did you resolve the difficulty? How did that work out? What way of life do you have a hard time understanding or empathizing with? How might you create characters who represent that way of life?

Note: I know I’ve covered some of this ground before in previous posts, but it seems particularly germane as we head into 2019, and I thought it was worth another round of discussion.

About David Corbett

David Corbett is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.