Before a certain age, kids draw what they actually see—or so an artist told me. It might be unpracticed, but it’s honest. Then, at some point, they internalize a library of symbols for everything. A “nose” looks like this. “Sorrow” looks like that. Grass is just green. So, instead of drawing what they actually see, they just register a nose and draw their default nose symbol. Artists, I’m told, go to great extents to unlearn this “unseeing” and to teach themselves to actually see again.
Does that resonate? It should! Because authors run into the exact same problems. Only when abused, our symbols become clichés, tropes, and stereotypes that taint our characters, plot points, and even our poor, defenseless landscapes. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love a good symbol. Like the soundtrack of a movie, they are effective, almost invisible ways to enhance the emotion and resonance of your story. When used well, they can bring you to the brink with a handful of words. And they are so powerful, that people internalize and then use the symbols they consume without even thinking about it. But therein lies the problem.
Symbols are fantastic—when we think about them. Of course, we don’t always think about them. Like artists, we often practice by mimicking the work of those we admire—without understanding the whys behind the lines we’re drawing. This can lead to misunderstandings of anatomy, such as nostril-punctuated lips. Eventually, with enough practice, we internalize these imperfectly copied symbols and pull them out of context to use in our own writing--without ever noticing the tragic consequences of said misplaced nostrils. Understandably, such a piece, no matter how original, will read a bit off and weirdly self-caricaturized.
If you want your characters to truly live and breathe, it’s important to take the time to study the anatomy of the realities you are writing about—to learn to really “see” as artists do. But how can we, as authors, work on these all-important “seeing” skills? How can we make sure we’re actually writing about the world as we see it, and not as it has been fed to us?
Learn to Listen
The most important thing any author can do is learn to listen. Listening helps authors develop an ear for dialogue—the way different individuals talk. Try not to make assumptions, when listening, or to group people into categories, but rather collect individual voices like characters in your head. You can even practice writing like the different voices you’ve collected at home—or mine your own voice, by looking at old diaries and listening to recordings of your voice as a kid.