It started occurring to me a couple years ago that a lot of my writing is a type of study, mainly a study of people. I write a lot about people who are as different from me as they can possibly be, people who do things I’d never dream of doing, and people who feel things I’ve never felt – at least never as intensely as my characters do. I have to write through my own filters, of course, but I do my best to circumvent them by allowing my characters to tell me who they are and why, unlike some writers, who develop every aspect of their characters before they even start writing.
I think it’s because of this deep curiosity about what makes people “tick” that I tend to be a lot more patient and…understanding of people when they do things that others would immediately condemn. I take a step back, realize that somehow, that decision they made actually did make sense in that person’s head for some reason or other, and I try to figure out why/how that happened. I instinctively treat them like one of my characters – they did something, it seems like a really stupid (or at least ill-advised) thing, and now I need to dig deeper and figure out why (because when I’m writing, my readers will want/need to know why if they’re not going to string said character up).
I’m pretty sure I learned how to do that while allowing my characters to “write” themselves. In my stories, I don’t tell my characters who they are, they tell me. They also tell me why they do things, and many times it’s as much as surprise to me as it would be to anyone else. And so I’ve developed this incidental “skill” of looking for the intent and logic behind people’s actions by looking at things through their most likely perspective, rather than just immediately jumping to a judgement.
Incidentally, people who do not have this skill don’t necessarily like it when you use it aloud. Especially when they’ve already jumped to a snap judgement and have no real desire to be talked out of it. Trust me. Unless it’s a life or death kind of thing, I’m careful about who I share my thoughts with. As it turns out, people don’t really tend to want to be understanding towards other people. They often want to believe the worst, because…drama! Trainwreck! Stuff you can talk about at the water cooler!
Also, it’s easier to just dislike/discredit someone else than to look at things through their eyes, and then try to negotiate from there, if change is necessary. Less scary not to think about what other people are thinking and why, too.
Alas, as a writer this is a big part of what I do. And yesterday I gave myself a perpetual writing assignment for Memorial Days from here on out. To build empathy (in myself) for the fallen soldiers we celebrate, I’ve decided to write one scene every Memorial Day – a scene wherein a soldier looses his/her life in battle. Since my characters write themselves, it should be a different style scene and a different type of death, but more than that, it should allow me to explore different ways that each soldier might deal with the situation – and that’s what I’m really interested in.
I wrote the first one yesterday, and it ended up very short, but I was interested in how it turned out. And wished I had Jeremy Nelson for a longer character study – he seems like a fascinating individual, at least for the short amount of time I “knew” him.
And so that’s where tonight’s excerpt comes from – yesterday’s Memorial Day scene:
It was dark, but each new explosion spread more light across the undulating smoke hanging low over the shallow dirt trench where PFC Jeremy Nelson lay on his stomach. He knew he’d been hit by the moist warmth seeping through his fatigues in several places, but he still held his rifle steady over a notched rock, still pulled the trigger whenever he had a combatant in his sights.
Occasionally he felt a twinge of pain, but he pushed it back into the recesses of his mind, keeping his head quiet, his focus sharp on the mission to provide backup to a special forces team of some sort. He didn’t know what their mission was – didn’t care, really. He had his orders, and he would follow them until someone pulled him out.