The title of this post might be a phrase you’ve heard of before. If you’re a writer or just familiar with any great writer (Stephen King for instance), then you’ve heard this piece of advice repeated. It’s a word from the wise on a practical approach to writing. I wish to augment this truth to include my own interpretation. This will include one of the primary reasons I am such a fitness advocate as a writer, artist, and creator.
The simplest I can put it is to refer to method acting. It’s a technique where an actor thinks and behaves as the character they will portray thinks and behaves. They live like them, put themselves in the character’s shoes while living their life in reality. It’s a tricky concept to grasp if you’re not very artsy. I understand. It’s the ultimate form of empathy through “make-believe.”
Why do I bring up method acting? It’s through this process of acting from personal experience that can result in spectacular performances. The actor who employs this method has an edge; they put themselves through the eyes of their character. They acted what they learned from experience. Can’t writers do the very same thing when it comes to creating story? At least that’s what I think for my approach to the page.
I put my characters through a lot of trouble. In Project Stripes (for example) Arthur has to get back in shape by running to accomplish his goals. While I’m not interested in running the distances he goes (or traveling to the Himalayas to do it), I can still empathize and recreate his struggles on myself. What else falls perfectly to this prescription than when I lift in the gym? By putting myself through physical trials, I can think like my characters when they are tested. If they go through challenges and ordeals both physically and mentally, don’t I have a responsibility to see what that’s like myself? How can I expect my readers to feel the gravity of the conflict and tests if I don’t know what that’s like in the first place?
There are some limitations. Yes. Many of the situations in my books will not be strictly possible for me to try out first-hand. Such is fiction. But through the power of empathy, I can translate my efforts in lifting to their situations in the stories.
This method, I believe, lends me a closer connection to my characters and the reader in turn. Via our shared difficulties, I can grow with my creations. Conflict, after all, is the whetstone to get stronger. In doing so, there’s a special kind of relationship I have with my characters. I know them by learning what I am capable of doing in the gym. If I ever hit a plateau on a set, I think about Arthur or someone else. I ask what would they think about? How would they overcome this and get to the end? When I sit down to write, I bring the answers to those questions into the story. It helps me work out the problem the character will face, and how they will (eventually) conquer it. Because if they get through it, so should it.
I hope this has helped enhance the already great advice of writing what you know. I’ve put my own spin on this tenet of writerhood. I hope to give readers compelling stories they care about from my approach to empathy.