by Michael Niemann
“Write what you know” is the age-old advice new writers usually get. As a result, we get a fair number of novels where the protagonist is rather similar to the author, except, of course, smarter, buffer, and all around more exciting. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re going to make up stuff, why not draw on, well, what you know. It makes the making-up part of writing a little easier. We writers have to work hard enough to make sure the stuff any reader can check up on is correct, never mind coming up with an entirely new character. Now, if you are (or were) a cop, a dancer, a reporter, a firefighter, or a CIA analyst, then taking that personal experience and making it more dramatic makes perfect sense. Take off a few years (and pounds), add a few muscles and a great plot, and you’re good to go.
That didn’t work for me. When I began writing crime fiction, I faced an existential dilemma. I’d never been at the receiving end of a crime. My own transgressions were rather pathetically minor. Something like a couple of parking tickets and a few encounters with illegal substances. I’ve never even been pulled over. The closest I got to a gun was during my military service in Germany in the mid-1970s. And then, I became…wait for it…a professor. How can I write international thrillers based on what I know? I know how to keep students mildly entertained, I know how to write articles that only my best friends read (if they are nice). Sure, I’ve traveled to many exotic places, but, again, never to war zones, never to disaster areas. I’m male, I’m white, I’ve had all the privileges that come with those social constructions. Consequently, I’ve lived a rather calm, predictable, even sheltered life. As far as crime fiction is concerned, I don’t know a damn thing.
Okay, now let’s take a quick detour. I recently had the occasion to interview an author of creative nonfiction. In preparation for the interview, I read some of her essays published in a variety of reputable outlets. The essays I read were autobiographical but were told with all the tools creative writing offers. There was a degree of intimacy in those essays that made me feel a little like a voyeur. They were sad, at times shocking, but also funny. I kept forgetting that these stories had really happened. I asked her about this, and she stated plainly that she doesn’t shy away from disclosing truths that are very personal. Those disclosures create vulnerability, but they also offer points of connection with the reader.
Back to the main point. Unlike that author, I don’t reveal personal truths in my thrillers. My protagonist is not at all like me. He’s younger, fitter, knows accounting, and speaks French, Flemish, German, and English. He’s stubborn, has the tenacity of a bulldog, everything you’d expect from a protagonist. But he isn’t my better, more desirable self. I don’t wish I were him, hell no.
The more I thought about the disconnect between who I am and what I write, the more I realized that I wasn’t being honest. I do know international and African studies (my academic fields), so there’s plenty of material for international thrillers. But knowing stuff doesn’t, by itself, make for a compelling story. The missing ingredient is empathy. Yup, you read right, empathy. I know it sounds crazy. Do you need to have empathy to write thrillers? I say yes. And this is where the lessons from the author I interviewed started to make sense. I’m not writing about my own life, but I write about the lives of people I’ve invented. It behooves me to create each of these characters with empathy, to feel what they are feeling as best as I can. By letting my characters act, love, and suffer in specific ways, I reveal something about myself. This is my version of letting myself be vulnerable. To the extent that my readers resonate with those emotions, I’ve made a connection with them. We connect over the shared sense that a specific character reaction to a situation sounds true to us because we can feel with them. It’s quite different from an autobiographical essay, few readers will be able to say, “Aha, so that’s who Michael Niemann really is.” And that quite alright with me.
Fostering empathy can be learned. For me, the starting point was learning Nonviolent Communication as pioneered by Marshall Rosenberg. For others, it may be something else. But employing empathy, being vulnerable and showing how I would feel in a given situation helps me create more plausible characters. This is especially important when it comes to writing antagonists. We don’t need more cardboard cutouts for villains. They, too, need to be real human beings, not ones we like, but still ones acting to meet their needs, even if their strategies for doing so are terribly harmful.
So, write what you know, but not only in the sense of rational knowledge, write also what you feel deeply and let yourself be vulnerable while you do it.
Michael Niemann grew up in a small town in western Germany before moving to the United States. He has studied at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn, Germany, and the Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver where he received his PhD in International Studies. He now lives in southern Oregon with his dog Stanley.
Michael’s latest thriller, NO RIGHT WAY, releases on June 11, 2019. It is available for pre-order here: https://amzn.to/2v0aqpf