In Their Shoes Is Not Enough (On Grace and Understanding Your Characters)

The other day I drove past the park and a woman was on the swings. She was by herself, and she was about 65 years old. She wasn’t twisting slowly back and forth and contemplating; she had a good swing goin’ on. I had the thought, “I wish I could put my soul in to mingle with hers.”

Was she reminiscing? Were her childhood memories of swings good ones, or was she living a childhood she’d missed out on sixty years ago? I would guess the former based on her body language. All I know is that when people say to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it’s not enough. If she’d left her shoes in the sand for me and I’d gone and put them on and swung up to the trees, I’d have felt the way feel on the swing, plus having shoes that didn’t quite fit. Even if I could have gone back to her first pair of baby shoes and lived in all her pairs of shoes throughout her whole life, I’d still have had my genetics. Her life might have seemed very different to me than it seemed to her.

Yes, this is about writing. I’ll get to that soon.

This week our church is doing a beans and rice challenge. I’m not sure that’s what they call it, but the gist is everyone eats beans and rice for a week in order to identify with people who are limited in their food choices, remember to pray for those in need, and save money on groceries, giving what we save to a worthy cause.

I did this same challenge a few years ago, and that time it didn’t seem like a big deal. It was the way we ate at the end of many a month already. This time, it’s been quite a while since I had to really pinch at the end of the month, and my experience was totally different. I did NOT like remembering what it had felt like to eat whatever we had at the end of the month, even though at the time I hadn’t thought much of it. It was just the way things were.

To be clear, we never went without food, and we knew we had relatives and friends who would buy us a meal whenever we needed. Still, for some reason eating beans and rice when it wasn’t what I wanted brought up some strange feelings this time. I was averse to it. I kind of felt like Scarlett O’Hara. “I’ll never be hungry again!”

Again, I never actually went hungry or even thought I might go hungry, but why did I feel like that? I have some ideas, but they’re not relevant to this post.

So. About writing. Wanting to put my soul into the woman on the swing reminds me of what we do with our characters. In fact, I’m sure it’s years of writing that made me think of it that way when I saw her. Trying at two different times in my life to put myself into the shoes of people who are restricted to beans and rice every day confirms to me that we can never really know another person even if we put ourselves in their shoes. My putting myself in their shoes at one time in my life showed me something completely different than it showed me years later. There is a flaw in the “in their shoes” philosophy. So as a writer, I want something more. I want my soul to mix with someone else’s until I truly understand what it is to be them.

Some people, when asked to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, imagine themselves in the other person’s situation and still have no compassion for them. Part of the problem might be that they are putting themselves in the other person’s shoes. This is where grace comes in. When putting yourself in someone else’s shoes doesn’t give you compassion, and you are not given the chance to mix souls, you must trust that God’s directive to have mercy and compassion makes up for this inability.

Oops, this is about writing.

This whole beans and rice thing has made me second guess my ability to understand my characters. Oh, Woman On The Swing, how I wish I knew how you felt and why you felt that way. The best I can do is to spend time with my characters. I have a better shot at mixing my soul with theirs than I do with real people, since they do live in my mind, after all. To this day it bothers me that I accidentally had two of my characters in Anaheim Tales phrase something the exact same way. A sign of a weak writer. No one else would probably notice it, at least on the first reading, but it’s there, and I know it’s a lack of understanding of my own characters. There’s no good explanation. They’re not good friends who might have picked up on each other’s way of speaking. It’s a matter of just plain not getting into the soul of my character.

I’m not sure I put all these thoughts in the right order, but I think you can understand my meaning. I’m afraid I’ll put too much of myself in my characters, and I’m afraid that they will look so different to me in twenty years that I’ll be ashamed of them. Will I misunderstand them because of my personality and life experience? Will a character who seems noble to me now seem selfish or shallow or sexist to future me, or to current you? Will I understand my character better after publishing and wish I could change their actions? Interviews with other authors tell me that yes, I will. And so I suppose I should just mingle souls with my characters as well as I can until publishing day and send them off with a little grace for them, and a little for me.


One thought on “In Their Shoes Is Not Enough (On Grace and Understanding Your Characters)

  1. Our church participated in an elaborate poverty simulation that was actual pretty realistic. It had a lot to do with limited funds and how the system works against, even takes advantage of the people in our entitlement programs. But the real topic here, character development, I am not sure I could develop a character without really knowing someone very similar well. I guess I have enough fodder characters to carry me for a couple of decades and I’ll stick to them. It is probably best for everyone involved.

    Liked by 1 person

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