Bad Advice Wednesday: Walk a Mile in their Shoes

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour

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Ooh, those people and groups and activities and works of art and parts of the country and professions and foods and music and movies we hate.  Musicals!  Someone said to me recently, just the one word, meaning how awful.  But I like musicals.  Always have.  And here’s an acquaintance assuming I agree with her–because who in their right mind wouldn’t?  These days I’m always ready to answer with the truth, and did, trying to sound affronted: “I like musicals.”  I like lots of stuff that you don’t like.  That doesn’t make me crazy.  Anyway, bad advice for writers this week is to like something you hate.  Danny Kaye movies?  Sushi?  HipHop?  Camping?  Cats?The method is to immerse yourself in the hated subject or subculture, giving all of your attention and none of your judgement, all in order to understand a character who isn’t like you in whatever specific regard.  If you’re a hater, you’re not going to get to some of the richest corners of a character’s (villain or hero, doesn’t matter) inner life unless you find a way to appreciate the things your character (who’s nothing like you), loves.

This works in nonfiction, too.  And it works as a tool of reportage.  Before you go talk with the gun advocate, study up, even go to a shooting range and rent a Glock or whatever they’re called and blast some paper targets.  That makes you someone your source is going to talk to, and not just talk, but spill the beans, baby.  Or memoirist, listen. Your sister loved punk rock while you abhored it.  But get some records, punk, punk, punk, listen till you’re hooked.  Call up articles and videos and images on the web on the subject and the history, and fit all you learn into your own timeline.  Then write your piece.  You know how actors go work in a mine for a month to get their portrayal right?

Do that as a writer.

  1. Tommy writes:

    I didn’t know that about actors and mimes. That would explain the popularity of the genre in the Eighties. Perhaps I read that wrong. Excellent Bad Advice, Bill, for everyone from writers to world leaders and sales associates.