Empathy

By April 4, 2011Comms

I’ve always admired writers like George R.R. Martin and Peter V. Brett for one reason above all: they write with incredible empathy.

Most of my career has been made in the binary, rules-first world of the military and law enforcement. Trying to identify with people isn’t what you’d call a strong suit in my line of work. You break the law, we enforce it. Our commander gives us an objective, we carry it out. Time and effort is put into thinking-like-the-enemy, but almost never into feeling-like-the-enemy.

That’s cold. But it’s also necessary. Military and law enforcement has to be a tool of the civilians that direct our efforts. We can’t be second-guessing the will of the people. That way lies military coup and the kind of regime that currently rules in Myanmar.

But it’s not a good perspective if you’re a writer. I’ve said this before about Martin: he’s never served in the military, yet he writes warriors who are so convincing that if someone told me he was a veteran ghetto brawler, or had done a spin (Jordan style) in Vietnam, I’d believe them. He writes women that are so plausible that I sometimes wonder if he might secretly be a woman.

Empathy, the ability to really sink into the skin of people who are unlike you, to shed your own preconceptions and lose yourself in the mind and heart of another, is a critical skill for any serious writer. If you’re going to make your characters live and breathe, you’ve got to know them as well as you know yourself.  And believable characters are the heart of any good story.

And this is my constant fear when I write. I’ve spent my entire life training to judge, to execute. That is exactly what you don’t want to do when you’re a 30-something white guy trying to step into the role of a woman, or a black guy, or an older person, or a child, or someone who doesn’t have the same body type, religious beliefs, political leanings. Without empathy, military stories run the risk of being oorah-paeans of praise: where a cultural/gender stereotype of the triumphant American warrior marches on to victory, flag waving behind him. It’s High Noon. It’s A Bridge too Far.

Those are great stories. But they’re not the story I tried to write in the SHADOW OPS series. I desperately want my work to stand up to scrutiny by women, for them to see themselves reflected in my female characters and to feel that I got it right, the same way I feel when I read a Jaime Lannister chapter by Martin. The truth is that I’m largely a stranger to a wide range of experiences women have every day, the myriad of things large and small that shape who they are and why they want the things they want. I believe there is an experience out there that is uniquely and universally female. I have tried really, really hard to perceive it and understand it, and I’m continually terrified that I’ve failed.

Only time will tell. Sooner or later, my work will be trotted out before you, and you’ll see for yourself whether my female characters resonate, or whether they will come across as men with female names.

There are so many aspects to good writing that I sweat over. Some, I feel solidly confident about. I am a disciplined person. I am a hard-working person. I am a creative person. I am an imaginative person.

Am I empathetic person? I dearly hope so.

 

Author Myke Cole

Myke Cole is an American writer of history and fantasy who leverages a lifetime in military, law enforcement and intelligence service to take you to battlefields, real and imagined.

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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Speshulted says:

    I take issue with your appraisal of war fighters as inherently non-empathetic. Did sun tsu not say to know your enemy as you know yourself will lead to greater victory than knowing either singularly well?
    I would contest that best investigators I know had a deep grasp of lying and the best warriors I fought with showed a frightening grasp of our enemy’s motivation.

  • Caitrin says:

    I’m just as terrified writing from a man’s perspective! I’m sure you’ve done just fine though!

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