I’ve heard of some teachers who asked students to write both sides of an argument. To do this, you have to genuinely argue a side that you don’t necessarily agree with and maybe you’ve never understood or thought was evil. One of the great advantages to a project like this is that it forces people to be empathetic to the other side. You can’t make an argument that you don’t understand. I can’t recall the specific case I’m thinking of, but the kid argued pro and against immigration. He actually got suspended for his “against” immigration argument, as someone leaked it out of the school and he was called a racist.
He didn’t even agree with the against argument and he wasn’t white himself, but he took the time to genuinely understand the argument counter to his own and did so with genuine respect and decency.
This is what every writer should be doing when writing any character. I don’t know about you, but I don’t agree with everything that all of my characters do. Some of them are murderers, most of them have promiscuous sex of some kind. I have one character who’s a sex addict. I have some who are religious, some who aren’t, the religions vary. The backgrounds vary. I have characters who are evil and characters who are good. There’s no way for a writer to write a convincing, authentic, and real cast unless the author takes the time to understand each person.
Empathy is key to creating deep and strong characters.
It’s also the key to writing characters you don’t agree with. For every character in your novel, film, short story, whatever — you should look into understanding their wants, desires, needs, fears, struggles… and genuinely understand who they are and what they want.
I got my bachelor’s degree in theater and this is something we had to do for every character we played. Our directors would instruct each actor to know where their character was before they entered the scene, what their need was during the scene, and where they were going after the scene. In character analysis, we had long and short form character discovery sheets where we would read the plays and find what the characters SUPER-objective was (their goal through the play) and what their scene objectives were (how each scene would contribute to reaching the goal of that super-objective). A scene goal could be as simple as, “I need freaking water. I am so thirsty” to “I need to get rid of this person before he finds the guy hiding in my closet.”
Maybe you’re writing despicable characters…
But you should still try to understand who they are and why they want what they want or why they’re doing the things they are. While browsing a thread on this topic, one woman mentioned she was writing a story that contained a Nazi character who acted violently toward his son. In order to create a believable Nazi character who isn’t just a caricature, shallow cardboard cutout of a villain, you have to actually get in that characters head.
I can already feel you kind of pulling away.
“I don’t want to empathize with a Nazi!”
But people do this all the time for completely terrible people.
We show more empathy to regular murders as people call for the end of the death penalty, but still wish to destroy the Nazis. Look, if you want to demonize bad people for doing bad things, murdering someone is the same everywhere you go. If you want to write a story from the perspective of a murderer, you have to understand why they’d do it. That means you have to give genuine thought into their actions and justify them to yourself. That doesn’t mean you, as yourself, have to agree with the motivations of the character, but you have to agree to believe they’re right when you’re in that character’s head.
I absolutely loved reading the book about Carl Panzram.
And the one about Albert Fish. And I know I’ll love reading books about other terrible people in the future because it gives insight into motivation; it gives understanding to motive; it helps me, as a human, to understand other humans and what will drag people to their worst.
You might not agree with the Nazi father who abuses his son — in fact, you likely won’t, but if you can get into his head and understand he fears that his son will be murdered and this is how he was taught to correct behavior so he believes he’s doing the right thing to save his son — or what have you — you don’t have to agree that he’s doing the right thing, but you have to understand it’s what he knows and it has to make sense to him.
My sex addicted character was molested as a child. He derives his self-worth from being desired. He also uses the dopamine hits to soften the anxiety he feels when he starts feeling worthless or scared or small because his issues were never taken care of. He was never allowed to talk about what happened to him and when he’s being fucked out of his mind when he can’t think, when he’s getting praise, he feels good. It makes him feel less disgusting, less guilty, and less of a failure. When the dopamine high drops off, he starts looking for another one. He just wants to numb the pain and the feelings he doesn’t know how to cope with any other way.
Is this a healthy way to cope? No. Would I do this myself if I was having emotional problems? No. But I don’t have to. I just have to understand his thought process.
This is how it is for any character you write.
You can write any perspective you can possibly think of or run into. But the way you write viewpoints that are different from your own, whether you’re an atheist writing theists or a Christian writing gays or a high school student writing about international criminals — you have to put in the time and effort to truly understand why people do what they do and not demonize them for it while you’re in their head.
It’s a difficult job — to treat opinions you might even hate with respect, but it’s something that makes good writers stand out from the rest and I think it’s a skill more people would benefit from having.