In Other Words – Empathy Exercises #4

How do you tell a story from the point of view of someone very much unlike you? Some might argue that you don’t have the right, but it would be a poor world if we all only told exactly what we already knew. Not only would we miss opportunities for authors to learn, but opportunities for readers to learn, too.

A side note about cultural appropriation. This is not a subject I can treat fully here, without getting very distracted from the point. But here’s a short mention.

A wise young friend advised me that it’s better to err on the side of not using cultural expressions, fashions, language and beliefs you’re not part of. But there are cultural expressions that don’t belong to me that are clearly on offer in a thousand ways, for public use: anime tee shirts, native cultural jewelry for sale to whites, characters in other languages on merchandise.

My friend agreed, and responded that if you do your research, and there is strong evidence that most of the members of the culture do not object, then it’s allowable to respectfully use cultural expressions for a good cause. It’s hard to know when you’re crossing that line – but do your best. For example, many tribal cultures in my country do not wish their religious rites to be observed, photographed or written about, and those would obviously be completely off limits, even if I have access to archaeological journals with information. But I don’t have to have a strong Celtic cultural heritage to write about triskelion artwork or have it on my book cover if it’s appropriately used, without stereotype and with respect.

Like most of my brief side notes, that wasn’t so brief, but here’s the takeaway. You’ll note the key is research. Find out. Ask when you can. Read up. You won’t be able to help but broaden your horizons in the process, which is also good for your empathy level.

Now back to writing about things from different perspectives – down to one person at a time, rather than a culture entire. A person who is different from yourself. From previous empathy exercises, you’ve heard that reading as much as you can get your hands on is indispensable. You’ve also heard about asking people their stories, making up stories of your own about people you see, and learning as much as possible, all while being mindful of whether you’re really considering things from other points of view, or merely dealing with aspects of yourself.

Now, in this final exercise, it’s time to put all this to work. Read the whole exercise first before getting started. Remember to leave your ideas of right and wrong at the door; you need to know what motivates your characters and why. You’re going for internal consistency of motivation, not for alignment with your own beliefs.

Part One – Write a flash fiction piece, a complete story of 1000 words or less, about a character who is different from yourself. The story needn’t have too much backstory, but should have a problem for the character to solve, and have them do something about it that you yourself would not do.

Part Two – Write a separate complete flash fiction piece, about a character who is different from yourself and also from the character in Part One, though the setting is the same world and time period.

Part Three – Write a complete short story, 5000 words or less, in which you bring those two characters into conflict. This is when the work you’ve done in the background to understand those two characters becomes valuable. You know why they act as they do, and the first two pieces illustrate what they’re like. If you can’t find any reason why the two of them would disagree, they might be too similar!

Finally, shop this story around. It’s good for you to get rejections, and it’s good for you to get acceptance and money. Remember to go through hundreds of rejections before you give up. Remember to be ready to accept criticism and rework to adjust, especially if a publisher or magazine asks you to resubmit with changes – that’s a huge step forward. But even if it goes nowhere, it will make the next story you write and submit that much easier. There is no wasted effort in writing, except the effort of making excuses not to write.



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