By Julia Bell, Novelist and Senior Lecturer, University of London

21 August 2017 - 23:13

One of the hallmarks of a good writer is that they can present an array of characters who are not at all like them but who seem to be utterly convincing on the page. I’m thinking especially of recent virtuoso turns by writers like David Mitchell (who invents a multitude of voices in his novel Cloud Atlas), or Emma Donoghue in Room (which has been a great success because of her invention of the voice of something she is most certainly not – a 10 year old boy). The secret? Writing what you know. This advice is often given to writers and just as often misinterpreted as meaning ‘write your autobiography’. But what constitutes writerly ‘knowing’ is not just the individual writers’ set of personal circumstances – their age, gender, nationality or class – it is their capacity to look at the world around them and understand it through empathy and observation.

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Good writers can make a short walk across an empty room interesting. Although a capacity for observation is not always innate, it needs practice, and can be trained or honed like a photographers eye, or a dancers body, or a singers voice. Try this: next time you walk around your house or your office or your neighbourhood, try and imagine that you are seeing it for the first time What about the street furniture? the visual language? the shapes of the buildings? the light? the smells? the sound of voices, accents? How much of this do you look at with ever really seeing? Push this further, try to imagine who might be looking – what would your neighbourhood look like to a child? Small children, are, well, small – where is their eye level? What would they see that we might take for granted? What about an illegal immigrant? How would their sense of danger/exile/alienation affect the way they saw your familiar neighbourhood? Or from the point of view of a foreign visitor? What might they experience that you take for granted? Take notes and ask questions, lots of them, these observations will be very valuable to your writing.

But observation can only get you so far. A writer has to bridge the gap of experience – and imaginatively invest in a life experience which might be very different from their own. Gustave Flaubert famously asserted that his character Madame Bovary ‘c’est moi’. The eponymous novel is a detailed character study of the bored and passionate wife of a country doctor who embarks on a ruinous affair. What did a male, middle aged, middle class writer have in common with her? How could he claim she was also a part of him?

This is where empathy is a vital part of a writers’ toolkit. I don’t mean a kind of vapid, touchy-feely sympathy, but a very real capacity to put yourself, emotionally, in the shoes of another person. But how is it possible to ‘research’ empathy? The author Niall Griffiths in a novel Stump, wrote about a character who only had one arm. To try and understand what this might be like, he tied an arm behind his back and made a cup of tea. The result of this experiment became the opening scene of the novel, which describes in accurate and painful detail how difficult it is to make a cup of tea with one arm. This is very similar to the kinds of techniques employed by method actors trying to get inside their characters which demands the actor try as much as possible to experience the life of the characters. I’m not suggesting that you need to go to some of these extremes but think for example that you are writing about an illegal immigrant who is hiding out on your street. The first emotion worth considering might be fear, or desperation. When was the last time you felt afraid or desperate? How did you feel? What kind of behaviour did it provoke? You might not be an illegal immigrant, but most of us can understand the very human and universal sense of fear for our personal safety. Sometimes it’s more often the a case of simply thinking truthfully about your own lived experience and then applying it through imagination to character. So when I say ‘write what you know’ what I am saying is that you already know a great deal more than you think.

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About Julia Bell

Julia Bell is a novelist and Senior Lecturer on the MA Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author of three novels: Massive (Picador 2002), Dirty Work (Picador 2007) and Wise Up and the Creative Writing Coursebook (Macmillan, 2002).