It’s not about having a background that lines up with the characters you’re writing about, I realized. That’s not the responsibility of the fiction writer. Instead, you have the responsibility to be sympathetic—to have empathy. And the responsibility to be knowing—to understand, or at least desire to understand, the people you write about. I don’t think the quote means you need to handle your characters with kid gloves—I think it means you have to write something true by at least having a baseline of empathy before you start writing it.
Joe Fassler interviews novelist Angela Flournoy about Flournoy’s favorite passage in literature, one from Zora Neale Hurston’s (pictured) Mules and Men: “Mouths don’t empty themselves unless the ears are sympathetic and knowing.”
Flournoy’s novel, about a disenfranchised family in 2008 Detroit, was difficult for her to write. She questioned her own right to tell such a story when she had so little in common with the characters she was writing about. Flournoy describes how reading Hurston’s work gave her the peace she needed to finish and publish her novel by encouraging her to channel her worry into empathy for her characters and kindness for herself.
Do you agree with Flournoy? Can we, as writers, do enough research and extend enough empathy to create accurate, detailed, understanding portrayals? If you agree with Flournoy, how could we apply her thesis to our own writing, especially as we try to write more diverse stories and characters?