Withhold judgement about your characters

With fiction [as opposed to writing a column], the process is different because I don’t know where the story is going. I’ll know that I want to write, say, a story about a young woman whose father dies. And I’ll know I want that story to explore grief. But I never exercise any moral judgment on the characters. To me, they are just characters. By withholding judgment, I can look at the world, through their eyes, with humility. I don’t judge them as “good” or “bad”; they are all flawed human beings. I would say this kind of writing uses a different muscle—it relies much more on the powers of empathy.  – Laila Lalami in an interview here.

Wikipedia Photo

I’ve been following this author’s works for ages, beginning years ago when she had a blog called Moorish Girl. The blog’s archives may still be out there, but she more or less stopped writing it when she published her debut novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits in 2005.

Most of us cannot replicate the prose, much less the intelligent world view of this award-winning Moroccan-American novelist and college professor. Yet, when I read her ideas about literature and especially the writing of fiction, I see goals worth striving for. In general, I try not to judge my characters, that is to say, to give the reader an author’s view about which of them are good and which of them are bad.

To the extent that we can withhold judgement, we increase our ability to create a memorable story because we let the characters speak for themselves and form their own opinions without allowing our beliefs intrude into the story from the outside. I found this difficult to do when writing my Florida Folk Magic Series because my longtime hatred of the KKK made it almost impossible for me to treat them objectively.

Lailami believes that “the development of empathy is crucial to personal growth as a human being but also as a writer.” I agree though I’m not sure I can achieve it. Yet it seems to me that everything from world peace to family harmony depends on the empathy we have for others. That empathy makes us more real and accepting and does the same for our fiction.

–Malcolm