I have come to think, therefore, that the basic thing we must do is to stop generalizing about people. If we no longer thought of them as groups, but as individuals, we would soon find that they varied in their different groups as much as we do in our own. It seems to me quite natural to say: “I do not like John Jones.” The reasons may be many. But to say: “I do not like Catholics or Jews” is complete nonsense. . . . It is individuals we must know, not groups!Eleanor Roosevelt, What I Hope to Leave Behind
When Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “It is individuals we must know, not groups,” she probably wasn’t thinking about how to help writers develop compelling stories. Reading that line as a book coach, though, I’m struck by the truth of it, not only as advice for combating hate and prejudice but also as a guideline for writers.
Here’s one example: I was recently asked by another coach to help with a writer who had written several passages that she feared would come across as racist. The writer had not intended to portray her protagonist as someone who was racist, but because the writing was relying on generalizations, the effect was alienating rather than compelling. The other coach and I wanted to help the writer show more of her protagonist’s inner life—specifically, what the character was thinking and recalling from past experiences. That way, readers would have a chance to understand why her character interpreted a particular situation the way she did. By avoiding the generalizations and being more specific, the writer could show us a person who had every reason to be angry and fearful. While readers might not agree with the character’s bias, they would be more likely to empathize with her.
Working with this other coach helped me as well, because coincidentally I happened to be working with a writer who had been portraying a few of the characters in her story in a way that made them seem more like caricatures than real people. I ended up giving her similar advice: dig deeper to figure out who this person is on the inside, how they think and feel. Don’t just tell me about their physical features—help me to understand why they are in the story at all, why your protagonist is affected by them. Show me the distinctive point of view they’re bringing to the story.
While thinking about this idea of specificity and the difference it can make in a story, I was also reading Becoming by Michelle Obama, The Leavers by Lisa Ko, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. All three of these books present a particular point of view, a window into the soul of another human being. They help us to imagine how it feels to be someone else, to exist in the world in a different way. Once I was inside their worldview, I began to understand what had previously been beyond my own frame of reference. I saw what made us different as well as what we had in common.
What I love most about being a book coach is having the opportunity to read a wide variety of stories as they are being written by a wide variety of people. I don’t mean pale imitations of stories, thin as topsoil and generic as store brands. I mean specific stories, about individuals, each one with a unique perspective and voice that’s been shaped by years of experience.
During the early stages of a draft, a scene or even a whole manuscript may come across as generic and bland. That’s because the full story isn’t on the page yet. It’s overgeneralizing, showing how anyone (“Joe Average”) would be affected by what’s happening in the moment, as if the protagonist or narrator had no unique identity, no history, no worldview, no special concerns or goals.
A generic story falls flat because it oversimplifies human experience and leaves it up to readers to fill in the blanks. It presents characters as if they were merely a collection of stereotypical traits: resentful housewife, angsty teen, weird homeschooler, dirty or ignorant [insert label here]. That can lead to a dull story or, worse, it can alienate readers who may be offended by the stereotypes. Readers may add meanings you hadn’t intended to convey.
If the problem is that the writer doesn’t know their character well enough yet, I encourage them to work on developing their character’s backstory more fully. Try to figure out what makes that person think and act the way they do. If the problem is that the writer isn’t showing everything they know to the reader, we’ll work on fleshing out the details.
When a character’s thoughts and feelings aren’t fully on the page, readers are forced to make assumptions, jump to conclusions, rely on prejudices. That’s not good, especially if the character is, well, “complicated” (someone who has been misunderstood, or who appears to be racist or cruel, for example). To be able to relate to the characters in a story—and the real human beings in our lives—we need a little help seeing the world as the controversial character sees it. Otherwise we start putting people into boxes, where they don’t belong.
A few years ago, I read Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. I was struck by his premise: diversity unites. He explains that parents of children who are “different” (autistic, deaf, Down syndrome, child prodigies, schizophrenic, transgender, transracial adoptees) tend to have in common the universal experience of how it feels to parent a child who is substantially different from you (and vice versa: how it feels to be the child of parents who are unlike you). Though these families couldn’t have been more different, on some level they were similar.
His book helped me to understand why, as an adoptee, I struggled to explain to my adoptive parents why being adopted wasn’t exactly the same as being born into a family. It also helped me to see how my own children, who weren’t adopted but were often asked by strangers if they were, experienced life in our small, ethnically monochromatic New England town differently than I did.
I’d worried my children might be subjected to racist attacks (my husband once having been told to “go back to China”), so I was relieved when they told me they’d rarely had to deal with people teasing or harassing them. The problem, they said, was having to feel so darn conspicuous all the time. They always stood out in a crowd while I, with my physical resemblance to all of our neighbors, blended in. I’d been oblivious to the effect that could have on a person, because I hadn’t been seeing things from their point of view.
While their father said he could relate to how that felt because he was in the same predicament, he couldn’t know exactly what it was like to be biracial. Our kids inherited their Japanese features from him, but when our eldest daughter visited Japan, she still stood out: as not-quite-Japanese. To be clear, it wasn’t just because she was an American, which is what people tend to assume. It was because she didn’t look Japanese to Japanese eyes, or at least not as Japanese as she looks to people in rural New Hampshire who always saw her as “Asian.”
As with any children who are different from their parents in a fundamental way, my children developed a worldview that was not just a combination of mine and my husband’s. They are the culmination of all their experiences, as we all are. And you may have noticed I’ve just set a bad example here, because I’ve been generalizing, too, grouping all three of my kids together as if they were one person, which of course isn’t right. Their racial make-up and hometown are insufficient—I haven’t shown you nearly enough to allow you to picture them as individuals. If I was writing a book about them, I’d have to do better.
Which brings me back to my point: specifics matter. I push writers to be specific because I want them to move away from stereotypes and reveal authentic human beings. A writer who can provide a glimpse of the world from a single, unique perspective has the power to elicit genuine empathy and understanding, one person at a time. I believe writers have an opportunity to open minds, open hearts, and perhaps even change the world for the better. My goal is to help them take full advantage of that opportunity.