Empathy for Evil

Back toward the beginning of March, my friend, Adam Getty wrote a really interesting post about The Creeper. You can read it here. I’m going to try and avoid mangling what he meant, but essentially it came down to this (Adam will no doubt correct me if I’m wrong):

  • Write what you know is fundamentally good advice.
  • Sometimes you write about horrible things or from the perspective of horrible people.
  • Each of us has a “creeper”, a little voice in the back of our mind capable of thinking horrible things. We keep it locked down and hidden away. But occasionally, when you need to write horrible things, you need to release the Creeper to make it feel real. To give the horrible things an authenticity.
  • This can be problematic because when people read your stories, they think you must think like that. People must wonder if George R.R. Martin is a bit messed up considering how much he writes about incest, rape and butchery.

It’s a really good, thought-provoking read. I also kind of disagree with it. I’m not sure I quite buy into the “Creeper” theory, while still agreeing with 3/4 of those bullet points above.

Writing what you know is great advice. If you know something, you can write about it better than blindly groping in the dark. If it’s a thing, some game or setting, you can write with passion and make it come alive. If it’s a feeling, you can write about it in more detail and make it seem more real to the reader. But I think write what you know is like “show, don’t tell”. It’s the training wheels of writing advice.

The next level up is empathy. You need to be so connected with your characters, so drawn into what is happening to them, that you can experience feelings that you may never have felt before. Write what you know becomes write what you can properly imagine.

I’m a speculative fiction writer, on the whole. However, a couple of years ago I wrote one of these middle-class, middle-aged relationship literary stories. I added a certain amount of humour to make it interesting to myself. My father rather liked it. However, he was amazed that I was able to capture the main character’s thoughts so well. Something along the lines of: “you’re 22, how do you even know how to explain all these thoughts?”

I paused. A moment of silence as my eyebrows creased together. “I mean, uh, I imagined it. You know I write about wizards a lot of the time while not, in fact, being a wizard.”

It’s true, I’ve never really experienced the final moments of a creaking relationship (they tended to break either before that stage, or fortunately as of now, the relationship hasn’t creaked at all). I don’t know what middle-aged people think as they’re confronted with a certain ennui. But I was able to imagine that. I was able to empathise with my characters, try to get inside their head, try to think what that would feel like.

But what if you’re not writing about wizards or broken relationships? What if you’re writing about evil. I’m going to Godwin this in a big way, so bear with me. Maybe avoid taking a sip of water. I think to be a good writer you have to try and be able to empathise with Hitler. Or Stalin. Or a serial killer. Before I end up on some sort of register, I note there’s a clear distinction between sympathy and empathy. I think we can all agree on the statement of expression: Fuck Hitler. Fuck that guy. He’s a dick. However, I do think you have to be in a position to try and understand his mind. Imagine what he was thinking. Only then could you convincingly write a story involving him.

Let’s draw this away from Hitler and back to Adam’s Creeper, though. I don’t think there’s a Creeper inside my head that I use to write evil. I don’t think, somewhere, there’s a little voice that adequately reflect the thoughts of, say, the Joker. However, I do think you have to try and empathise with him. You have to try and get inside the Joker’s head. In many ways, you need to try and become the Joker. Just for a few minutes.

And that is just as horrifying as the Creeper. It’s a recognition that you’re capable of understanding a killer or a wife-beater or a psychopath or a financial crook. It means you can put yourself in their shoes and imagine what they’re thinking. It’s a dark place but I think it’s a place necessary to go to. Unless, I suppose, you write really light fluffy stuff? Then, uh, congratulations.

Either way, Creeper or empathy for Hitler, putting your writing into the world is a terrifying thing to do. I think we’re losing the ability to differentiate between the Author and the Character. My characters can think and say horrible things. It doesn’t mean I agree with it. Sometimes, though, you run the risk of the reader not understanding that.

And that’s scarier than any creeper could ever be.


3 thoughts on “Empathy for Evil

  1. I see where you’re going with this, but it’s not different.

    You’ve simply chosen to externalize your Creeper. Rather than acknowledge that, “Man, I can really imagine some terrible things.” you’re choosing, “Man, this character (who may or may not be Hitler) can really imagine some terrible things.”

    But the fact is, in able to write evil, you have to think evil. That’s really all the Creeper is. The part of you that dreams up evil.


    1. I still don’t know if they’re the same thing. I mean, I’m not externalising the ability to imagine evil. I’m fully confessing I can imagine evil things (like what Hitler would think). I just don’t think those evil things are coming from something within me.

      I guess, if anything, my post is more a rejection of “write what you know” than the Creeper. Like I said, “write what you know” is great to start with, but the rule should evolve to “write what you can properly imagine”. It’s less limiting and it makes you work harder.


      1. I think, as usual, we’re pretty much on the same page. “Write what you know” was really more of a rhetorical jumping off point from my own blog post.

        I’m definitely not saying that in order to write evil you have to go out and do some evil. Just that, sometimes, it helps to tap into that little reservoir of dark thoughts.


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