Bakadesuyo asks if writing can make someone more forgiving. The study he cites talks about writing more broadly and determines that it can indeed make people more forgiving of personal offenses. I think this makes sense from my own perspective in that when I put down my thoughts about something on paper, it makes me consider interpersonal issues more broadly and more likely to see things from the other perspective. I think this works for me in particular because I have a keen countervoice that argues against a lot that I say. It can make me a more effective and sometimes persuasive writer because, as my wife discovered during her brief stint in sales, whoever gets to the objection first wins.

When I first read the headline and hadn’t read the article, I was thinking more about writing fiction. I think the same applies there, too, much of the time. Sometimes people write fiction with a very specific axe to grind. This writing can be compelling, though it is made moreso when the writer can encapsulate the alternate point of view if only to knock it down. Swiping at strawmen is good at convincing the converted, but usually amounts to little more than a rallying cry. Taking the best opposing arguments and putting them out there with care is essentially getting to the objection first. People that are not already on your side can often latch on to anything that you missed and posit that it undermines your entire argument.

But beyond that, a good story requires three-dimensional characters from differing perspectives. Otherwise, there’s no conflict and no good story.

One of the things I take pride with in regards to my own novels written and unwritten is how well developed my characters are and how they are not simply compelling characters echoing my perspective and buffoons airing the opposite. The main characters in all of my stories do typically come from backgrounds similar to my own insofar as they are WASPy (if not always strictly WASP), but the ways that they see the world can differ greatly. They range in politics from far-right to far-left and everything in between. Most struggle with religion, though a couple (in different novels) are dedicated Baptists while a couple others are committed atheists. A couple characters who are reliable Democrats nonetheless express startlingly conservative viewpoints on particular issues and one politician who is a booster of the Religious Right is privately an atheist. And rather than being portrayed as simple hypocrites, I approach the characters with a great deal of care because I care about them. They’re complicated people. Most people are.

When you’re creating people from scratch and having basically good people holding views that you want to throttle them for, it requires a degree of forgiveness of backwards thought (however defined). It challenges assumptions on who your philosophical opponents are as people. When you have a thoughtful, honorable character with views that differ greatly from your own, it forces you to think about honorable people with very different views from yours. It becomes harder and harder to be smug and self-righteous.

Of course, writers can alternately rely on stereotypes and caricatures. Everybody that disagrees with them can be a knuckle-dragging fundie or a limp-wristed heathen. I certainly see enough movies and read (or listen to) enough books where this is the case. I am reminded of something Roger Ebert said about a movie being only as smart as its dumbest major player (usually the antagonist, but I think in the reference he was making it was someone supposed to be assisting the protagonist but whose job it was to be loudly and arrogantly wrong about everything). That’s something that gets lost along the way.

Category: Coffeehouse

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