Indeed, ideological haters do not know the people they hate. They see them through the thick and distorted glass of their rigid and limited frames.

Mary Phipher, PhD., in Writing to Change the World

Reading exposes us to all types of characters and ideas we might never encounter in real life. I have never met someone on death row, but Sister Helen Prejean’s book (and the subsequent movie) Dead Man Walking gave me an insider’s view of how our prison system deals with capital punishment. During the early AIDS epidemic, Randy Shilts’ The Band Played On took me into what was happening to the gay community during the early part of the AIDS epidemic. Tim O’Brien brought the human pain and suffering of soldiers alive in The Things They Carried. As a girl, I was memorized by the voice of another girl my age. Anne Frank’s account about hiding during World War II blew my secure little world apart as I became enveloped in her and her family’s life. There are countless other books that have expanded my world and my knowledge of what it means to be a person on this earth: Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861; This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer 

brought me face-to-face with the civil rights movement; Marilyn French’s feminist novel, The Women’s Room; and Isabelle Allende’s Paula, written while the author was with her dying daughter.

Not all of us are destined to write books that shake society’s preconceived notions, but we can make a difference no matter what we are writing. We do that by being truthful – about our lives or the lives of our characters. If you are writing about an abused young man, don’t sugarcoat the abuse and pain he suffers and how it affects him; if your protagonist is a lesbian, be honest about what her life is like, the good and bad; if your character’s daughter is smoking a lot of dope, make her real to your readers; if you have an executive in a company cooking the books, make us understand what drives him to do that. The same is true when you are writing about yourself. If you are overly obsessive, let us know what that’s like. If you crave danger, take us through your thought process. If you consistently fall in love with women who use you, explain why you do that.

The more our characters show their humanness, the reality of their lives – whether in fiction or nonfiction—the more we create a bridge for our readers to understand their world and their neighbors better. It’s hard to hate someone you know personally. Reading about different types of people opens our hearts to them, at least a little bit. Let your character shake up your readers’ lives by making them confront what they have never experienced or tried to ignore in their lives.

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