One of the joys of living with cats is, every now and then, it will be your job to clean up a crime scene, dispose of (parts of, usually) a body, that sort of thing. They bring their prey home. That’s what cats do. Dogs are predators too, but only under the right circumstances. They’re mostly content to let us handle the food thing. Not cats. They are predators all the time. A well-fed, healthy cat is just a more efficient hunter, that’s all. You know all the time they’re purring in your lap or rubbing against your face they are still thinking “If I was as big as a leopard, I would totally eat you.” And they would.
So what has that got to do with the price of tea in Nepal?
I’m not sure myself, but I think it has something to do with the transformation of experience that turns everyday events into fiction. There’s a quote floating around and I don’t know who said it first, but it goes something like this: “A good writer can watch a cat stalking a mouse and then describe what it’s like to be stalked by a tiger.” I submit that this is the sort of thing we do every day, whether you’re a good writer or just want to become one. How else can you write convincingly from the viewpoint of a sentient spaceship or an alien? Odds are you’re not going to have any firsthand experience with either, but when the story calls for you to write from either viewpoint you have to do it and make it convincing, or you can kiss that particular story good-bye.
So how do you do this? Well, as the example above implies, paying attention to what goes on around you doesn’t hurt. You don’t need to be the greatest observer of humanity who ever lived to make this work for you, but we’re getting close to the heart of that “transformation of experience” I was on about above. Keep in mind, I’m not necessarily talking about the accumulation of experience—that’s a separate thing. Useful, sure. You can probably write convincingly about the operation and life within a sixteenth century star fort with no more experience of one than reading about it in a good history, though personal accounts written about people who lived and fought in them would definitely be a plus. Even so, for the telling detail there’s nothing like visiting an extant example, like the Castillo in St. Augustine. Stand on the ramparts. See what a sentry of the time would have seen. Feel the confines of the barracks and powder magazine, look out through the gunports.
Okay, so much for the obvious stuff. In order to transform experience, regardless of how it is acquired, into vivid and engrossing fiction, you need one more thing, without which most of the rest doesn’t matter—empathy. I’d go so far as to say that without at least a touch of empathy, your characters are never going to be anything more than plot devices. If you want them to come alive, for you and especially for the reader, you need empathy. Why?
For one simple reason—you are that character, whoever or whatever it is, even if they are based on another person entirely, and without empathy, you simply cannot make that transition from “you” to “them.” There’s a great deal of mystery floating about around this idea. “My characters talk to me” or “They feel like old friends” or “I know that scene didn’t work because X would never do such a thing” and so forth. Sounds almost mystical, but it really isn’t. It’s just empathy at work. Can you imagine what it feels to be that mouse stalked by that cat? Put yourself in its place? Then you can write about the frightened little girl trying to evade the tiger. It’s not so much of a stretch as it appears. To inhabit a character and write them well and accurately, you have to be able to see the world through their eyes, even if the character is nothing like you. Your experiences, passed through the prism of another person’s point of view, emotions, and perspective to become something else, part of someone else. Even though, really, that someone else is you. Except not. Exactly.
Actually, that’s about as mystical as it gets.