Take out a blank sheet of paper and a pen. Go ahead, I’ll wait!
Now number down the left hand side, one through five, and draw blank lines after each. Got it? Okay. Here is the exercise. Fill in those five blank numbered slots with five things you are wrong about. Just five. Go on, I’ll still be here when you’re finished.
Having trouble? I thought maybe it was just me. I thought maybe I was the only person on the face of the earth who was right about everything. What are the odds there’d be two of us?
All right, I’ll stop being a smartass and get to my point.
It’s hard being right all the time — and it can ruin your writing. At some point in your life, whether through fiction or through an essay, you are going to try to convince people that your take on something is the right one. Unfortunately, unless you’re a truly extraordinary human being, you will begin this endeavor without first thoroughly and genuinely empathizing with your opposition.
All people believe that they understand all there is to understand about their opposition, just as all people believe that their side of an issue is the correct side. How do you know if you are one of the huge number of people who are wrong about one or both of these things? One way is to ask yourself these three questions:
- Would anyone I respect actually do/think the things I’m arguing against?
- Would any member of the opposition look at my portrayal of them and say, “Yes, that’s me exactly”?
- Is there anything in my writing that would make people on my side of the argument uneasy?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, you might be throwing punches at a straw man. Swinging your fists at nothing makes it pretty easy to win a fight. But if winning is less important to you than provoking change (or at the very least thought), it may be in your best interest to spend a few moments entertaining the most bone-chilling of questions:
What if I’m the idiot here?
Slip inside your opposition’s skin for a moment. Retain all your intelligence and powers of reason. Now find some way, via mental gymnastics, to catch at least a dim glimpse of the truth held in the other side’s point of view. This may take a while. We’re not looking for a perfunctory nod of “Yeah okay I get it.” We’re looking for true empathy, the sincere, visceral, emotional experience of holding that point of view. You’ll know when you have it, because you’ll feel incredibly uncomfortable.
If it helps, imagine it as an alternate universe in which your opposition is actually correct. Imagine yourself a protagonist in a story set in this parallel world where there really is a God, or where women really are less intelligent, or where people really did evolve from apes, or whatever it is you’re trying to argue against. Now imagine how you would feel about someone who insisted that the rules of the (now nonexistent) real world applied to this alternate world. Imagine what harm would come if people in power tried to run the parallel world by the rules of the real one. Try to viscerally feel the destructive stupidity of that.
This is an extraordinarily difficult but necessary thing to do, and it’s easy to spot writers who haven’t done it (see checklist above). Only when you are able to phrase your opposition’s side in a way that would make them say excitedly, “Yes! Exactly! You get me!” are you at the very beginning of the process of mounting an intelligent counterpoint.
Sometimes, in the course of researching the opposition’s viewpoint, you’ll actually talk yourself over to their side. And if you do, you should be proud, not ashamed. Integrity only matters if the thing you believe is actually right. If not, by all means, please change your mind.
The Art of Being Wrong in Fiction
At the risk of sounding like a Myke Cole groupie (I know he comes up in my blog a lot), his books are a classic example of two sides of an issue given their due respect. To grossly oversimplify, the two sides of the argument in his books are military vs. mage.
- Military: Magic is dangerous on an epic level when uncontrolled, and our job is to protect citizens from threats. So we train and control mages so they can use their powers for good.
- Mage: I didn’t ask for these powers, and yet I’m being penned up and supervised like some sort of criminal.
My natural modes of thought predisposed me to sympathize with the mages and to be appalled by the way the military blithely walked right over their civil rights. But here is the amazing thing. All throughout Cole’s books, he kept changing my mind.
Just when I would be furious at the military for treating mages so cruelly, I would be shown an example of how that same rigid military discipline unlocked mages’ potential and led to amazing acts of heroism. I’d be shown how selfishness and lack of cohesion caused untold destruction. And I’d start to think, “Okay, I guess the military are the good guys in this story,” and gamely I’d switch sides.
But then in the very next chapter I would be shown some example of how easily the military’s hierarchy and traditions could be abused to do something inhumane. So I’d switch sides again only to be shown in the next chapter why the military did that seemingly inhumane thing, and how catastrophic it can be when civilians try to demand their individual rights in the middle of a war zone. And suddenly I’m looking down my nose at the selfish civilians again.
Eventually, Cole’s stories do choose a side, of sorts. But you can’t forget the way you sympathized with the other side, and it makes some of the confrontations especially tense and heartbreaking. There are no idiots in these stories, only frightened people using the rules they understand best to cope with a situation that no one truly understands.
And guess what? In life, there may not be as many idiots as you think there are, either.