(AKA: Walk a Mile in Their Shoes)
We think we know what this often quoted, age-old, idiom means. But, have you mastered this technique?
In the creative world, we writers are attempting to convey a character’s perspective, motivation, and character arc while maintaining that character’s integrity.
Failing to get a character’s arc portrayed, believably, is often why I’ve had to reject a manuscript. The author may have created potential for a great story, but they’ve failed to understand more than one perspective. They’ve never truly put their main characters in another character’s shoes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about using multiple points of view. What I mean is, it’s vital for the main character(s) to come to some level of understanding on why another character behaves as they do. Without that key element, it’s just words on the page. The last thing you want is 300 pages of your hero and heroine misunderstanding each other.
Without a successful character’s arc, your story is static. Your character remains the same from page one to The End. A successful character arc moves from that character’s base line to having learned, accepted, and gained knowledge of another’s life and/or events. To achieve this, one must have conflict. I’m sure you all know this, but let’s dive a little deeper.
The basis for Conflict is putting your character into a situation in which they are, at the very least, uncomfortable, and at the extreme, they are so far in over their heads they will probably die. Even if the conflict is strong and sustainable, the character(s) must be capable of empathy.
Empathy is the ability to recognize another’s pain/humor/grief/anger/joy without having personal experience of what caused those emotions. Without empathy, there would be zero chance of effecting a believable character arc. That character is incapable of caring for another.
Look at it this way… Even though you may not have ever had a tooth pulled, you most likely know someone who has. When that person shares his dental experience with you, then you gain insight into the actions/reactions/emotions of undergoing that procedure—and then you’re more apt to successfully portray the oppositional character’s perspective.
The pinnacle of a solid character arc is often the trickiest. The author must move their character into one of two actions: Believable or Justified. Without the use of at least one of these points, your character’s integrity is lost.
Believable action: a character thinks or acts in a manner proven by that character’s prior experiences. In other words, what has come before comes back into play in a new situation, usually with higher stakes. Your character reacts in an expected manner—he’s true to himself.
Justified action: a character thinks or acts in a manner contrary to his/her own belief system, yet learned empathy allows the character to move in opposition to their beliefs. While the main character may not alter his own beliefs, due to his ability to fathom another’s perspective to some degree, he’s able to suspend judgment for a specific period-of-time. Or, he might possibly come over to the other side through the truth of proven facts. Your character reacts differently than before, yet the change is authentic.
In both options, the character’s integrity is maintained and the character arc is complete. If you’ve put all these elements together, your characters come to life and will have walked in another’s shoes on their way to Happily Ever After.
Well played, my friend! Your story will be unforgettable.
JANET CLEMENTZ earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Black Hills State University in South Dakota, and Post Baccalaureate hours in English Literature from the University of Houston, in Texas.
Janet’s Credo: Writing fiction is my addiction, but editing is in my DNA.
Background / Interesting Facts: Janet learned to adapt early in life, thanks to a name that is rarely pronounced correctly and often misspelled. (Facebook has a cute little pronunciation tool, so check out her page.)
Janet loves traveling and her adventuresome nature spurs many road trips. She’s lived in four states, and has visited thirty-nine of the fifty—so far. A seven-year stint overseas with her native-Texan-oil-patch hubby allowed excursions to four of the seven continents.
An award-winning author, she resides on the southern edge of San Antonio’s Hill Country with her husband, whom she’s kiddingly nicknamed Captain Bulldog. Janet spends her spare time with family and friends, or binge-watching eclectic TV series and old movies. She belongs to several writing groups and is a decades-long member of RWA. She’s published under the pseudonym of Jaye Garland.
What led Janet to editing: Back in the Dark Ages (prior to the Internet) Janet’s high school guidance counselor advised that a degree in English with an eye toward becoming an editor seemed her perfect career choice. Sounded great to her, but having been raised on the vast Great Plains, the young rancher’s daughter viewed life in the “big city” as daunting and a bit…dangerous. Granted, she could head off a stampeding herd of cattle and hit a rattlesnake’s buttons with a .22 rifle, but ask her to maneuver the public transit system or a city subway? Nope, wasn’t happening.
Fast forward a couple decades… After marriage and raising two smart-talented-handsome sons, living abroad just short of a decade and traveling the world, the biggest cities are now some of her favorite destinations. And, these days, thanks to the Internet, her office can be anywhere in the world.