Monday Motivation: Imagining yourself into some else’s shoes

 In Monday Motivation

In a thoughtful article recently in The New York Times, Dara Horn took a few well-aimed swipes at billionaires who devote significant fractions of their fortunes to research into… immortality. Their own, of course.

She’s the author of a new book called Eternal Life, about a woman who has lived through 77 incarnations, and wants now, more than anything, to die, once and for all.

That’s not the subject of this little meditation however.

What I want to zoom in on is a paragraph or two from her essay pillorying those billionaires. Here they are:

“Only for a nanosecond of human history have men even slightly shared what was once exclusively a woman’s burden: the relentless daily labor of caring for another person’s body, the life-preserving work of cleaning feces and vomit, the constant cycle of cooking and feeding and blanketing and bathing, whether for the young, the ill or the old. For nearly as long as there have been humans, being a female human has meant a daily non-optional immersion in the fragility of human life and the endless effort required to sustain it.

“Obviously not everyone who provides care for others is a saint. But engaging in that daily devotion, or even living with its expectation, has enormous potential to change a person. It forces one to constantly imagine the world from someone else’s point of view: Is he hungry? Maybe she’s tired. Is his back hurting him? What is she trying to say?”

Learning to walk in another person’s shoes is one of those absolutely essential skills every writer has to master.

There are a number of reasons this is so important. On the one hand, we need to be able to imagine what roils through his heart and his mind when this character is faced with the prospect of his own imminent death… Or when that character is confronted with the woman he shamefully abandoned twenty years before…

This takes a most deliberate act of the sympathetic imagination. But if you enter fully into your character’s consciousness, this is not as difficult a matter as you might fear. It’s more difficult, of course, when your character is very different from you. I remember someone who attended one of our courses who cast her story in 13th century Yemen – but found the task of inhabiting the consciousness of her Yemeni character impossible.

Many of the situations that we steer our characters into will be familiar to us: dealing with death, the beginning or the end of a love affair, a crisis with a child. Yes, you, the writer, might not have leapt through the hoop that you’re requiring your character to throw herself through – but it’s almost always possible to think analogically. No, you’ve not experienced the despair of a dying child – but you know what it is to mourn the death of someone you love, and so you can extend the tendrils of your imagination into this new, but adjacent space…

But occasionally, you push your character into corners you’ve never even been close to. Caught up in a home invasion, she manages to snatch a gun from one of the burglars, and shoots him. Now you’re marooned. You have no similar experiences to call on. So you’re forced back to basics. What does it feel like to be utterly threatened, to be completely desperate, to live, second by second, with the overwhelming knowledge that a slip could lead to your own death?

Your empathetic imagination has to engage a lower, more fundamental gear. You have to create the situation, putting in place every element: the details of the room you’re in, the smell of your own sweat, permeated with fear, the squeak of his sneakers on the kitchen floor, your tunnel vision, the slowing of time, the sound of your heart slamming into the walls of your chest…

Imagining yourself into another character is one of the most thrilling things a writer can do. It opens up another world, another vision of reality, another life…

Doubtless, this exercise will be easier if you’ve wiped babies’ bums and reminded an elderly relative, for the fourteenth time this morning, that you are her daughter, Jane, and that this is her house, and that she is loved and safe. This forces you, as Dara Horn says, to “imagine the world from someone else’s point of view”.

And if you’re an empathetically-deprived male? Well, you’ll just have to try twice as hard, that’s all.

Happy writing,



Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog ‘Writing Secrets: What characters want

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  • Alex Moll

    Thanks Richard. As usual, you have done a fine job of ‘imagining’ the needs of would-be writers.

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