Walking a Mile in the Character’s Shoes – Day 165

Friday morning during my “gear-up” time with tea and brekkie, I read about the Boston Bruins’ current trade situation. If you don’t know (or care about) hockey, keep reading anyway — I’ll bring it around, I promise.

Anyway, every year in the NHL at about this time, trade rumours start to fly. And every year, journalists ask players the same question: How can you possibly concentrate on the game when your teammates (or you) are up for trade? Doesn’t that nag at you?

And every year, players give a response like this:

“It’s a little tough,” said (Boston Bruin) winger Shawn Thornton, “but we’re professionals. You’ve just got to go out and play, and if something happened, it happens. I’m sure it affects the people who are being mentioned more than the ones who aren’t. But you know, we go through this every year. You’ve kind of got to figure out a way to just play. It’s out of our control and it’s kind of useless to worry about things that are out of your control.”

(from The Boston Herald)

Except that the writers never believe it — and that non-belief seeps into their writing. So that readers don’t believe it, perhaps subconsciously. If you are a writer yourself, sometimes you can look at a piece and see exactly how an article came about, whey the writer chose that particular word instead of another (maybe non-writers do this too, I don’t know).

Sometimes you can find that kernel of evidence in the writing like DNA at a crime scene that shows it’s the writer that perhaps shouldn’t be trusted, not the interviewee.

So why do journalists not believe the players? There are many things happening, but I think it comes down to this: writers as a group tend to be a worrying kind. I don’t mean that in a negative way (necessarily). Personally, I can’t help but run through scenarios in my head. It’s a constant ticker-tape of storyline up there of “what ifs”. So, naturally, imagining the worst scenarios is almost by definition worrying — at least if you are emotionally invested in the outcome.

However, hockey players — or people from many other professions for that matter — may not have this affliction. They just might be able to “turn it off” and actually not worry about it like they say.

To the average writer, that’s unimaginable. And, given that the players are emotionally invested, the only reasonable explanation is that they are lying. Therefore, they write it that way, the reader takes the subtle cues, and the person being quoted is set up as an unbelievable witness.

(When you understand this, you understand why journalists sometimes get it wrong, despite their best efforts. I’m speaking as a part-time journalist myself. Everyone has their preconceived biases. The difference is, journalists have the sometimes-impossible job of recognizing those biases and turning them off. Not always an easy thing…)

I think there is a valuable lesson in all this for the fiction writer. Walking a mile in the character’s shoes means understanding you have biases, and doing your best to set those aside so that your character’s biases come out. Question everything.

  • You brush your teeth with cold water, but did you know that some people use warm? Why would your character do that?
  • For some people, that tea-towel casually tossed on the island sticks out like red on white. For others though, it just blends right into the background, rendering all but invisible. What are the priorities of your character that make a particular object stand out or remain unseen?
  • You think in words, but did you know that some people think in impressions, like colours? How does that work? How does that effect the way your character sees the world, and interact with it?

I suspect that in some weird way, writers can make characters more believable by writing about situations that seem unbelievable to them.

Like not worrying about getting traded.

Got a good little bit of work done this morning. More time slotted in tomorrow morning. Still a little wordy, but I’ll do my best to par what I can, and worry about the rest in draft three.


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