Batman’s Advice to the Aspiring Writers of Tomorrow

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Batman’s not a writer, of course. Not that we know of, at least – maybe he has a Bat-Pen and a pad of waterproof Bat-Paper and he jots down poetry on patrol when he’s not beating up criminals or posing dramatically against sheets of lightning. (“The night wind blows cold/upon the streets of Gotham/Hang on, time to punch.”) But there’s one really great bit of advice you can get from this fictional vigilante, and it comes from the otherwise maligned “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice”. (Don’t worry, you don’t even need to watch the whole movie. It’s in the trailer.)

Batman asks Superman, “Do you bleed?” It’s a question every writer should ask themselves.

Because one of the traps that I think it’s easy for any writer to fall into, especially younger writers who may not have had much life experience (but who are of course still over majority age in their community because this is a blog for adults only) is glibness. When you’ve got a lot of talent, there’s a belief that you can coast over any insincerity or shallowness in your characterization with clever wordplay or an exciting plot, that people won’t notice that your people are stereotypes and caricatures because you’ve just written that story so well.

This is wrong. The audience always knows. It comes across in a hundred tiny ways – dialogue that doesn’t sound like a real human being would say it, decisions that seem illogical or nonsensical, ideas that seem patently unoriginal because they’re nothing more than a hollow echo of real feelings. (Roger Ebert had a nose for this shit – he could always tell when a screenwriter was reflecting what they’d seen in other movies instead of what they felt themselves.) No matter how much talent you have and how much practice you put into your craft, there is never any substitute for putting real feelings onto the page.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you can never write anything except for your own, specific lived experiences. We’re not all going to write memoirs for the rest of time. But it does mean that when you write a scene, you have to find the passions and emotions within your own lived experience that reflect that. Writing a scene about a surgeon undergoing a dressing-down at a malpractice hearing? You need to know your medical terminology, sure, but you also need to dig down to that fourth-grade self who fucked up a word at a spelling bee and stood in front of a room of laughing kids. Describing two young lovers meeting for a night of passion? It’s not going to feel real unless you can touch base with that light-headed thrill of anticipation you felt when you first saw the person who makes your heart pound.

This kind of projected empathy, being able to find your emotions and isolate the elements that go into them and recombine them into descriptions of events you can feel without experiencing… it’s a skill. It’s a mental muscle, one that’s every bit as important to hone as your vocabulary or your sentence structure or your organization of plot and setting. You need to be able to convey to someone what it’s like to be a half-elf living among humans, and you can’t do that until you understand who that character is. We all have experiences of ostracization. We all have times we’ve been hurt, we’ve been happy, we’ve been sad, we’ve been guilty. You need to be able to prick your metaphorical finger, let that feeling well up, and then let it bleed onto the page.

And once you do it, I don’t think it’s just your writing that improves. If you’re white and putting a Black character in one of your stories, and you don’t just research the historical experience of prejudice and oppression but really try to empathize with what it must be like to live like that, you will be more sympathetic and caring when you encounter those situations in your life. If you’re writing about someone whose lived experiences don’t match your own, but who you’ve made that mental and emotional connection to, you will feel more of the commonality of human existence. Empathy is good, full stop.

At the end of the day, people are going to love your work more if you’re an unconventionally-talented writer who pours out real feelings onto the page than if you’re a glib, quick-witted writer with no emotion behind their work. Hemingway didn’t use fancy prose. e e cummings didn’t even bother with capitalization. But they wrote powerful things, because they bled on the page. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always fun. But if you want to be a good writer, sometimes you have to open your veins up a little for the audience.

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