The strangest thing happened when I started getting towards the end of the first draft of my novel. Something I would never have expected. It was right at the end of the second to last chapter, and my main character had just come through to the other side of a life-changing, cathartic experience. I expected her to reflect on what she had learned; I readied myself to write some insightful commentary within the interiority of her thoughts.
And then instead, she fell to her knees. She fell to her knees to pray.
At first, I was surprised. And then, I have to admit, a little embarrassed. Like, what are you doing down there? This isn’t the way I thought this scene was going to end. And who’s in charge here anyway, huh?
I saw her there, my dear, dear character that I had been focused on with all of my loving attention for so long, and at first, I couldn’t hear what she was saying. She was murmuring a prayer that was coming from deep within, but I couldn’t make out the words. I knew that the chapter would end with her prayer, but I wasn’t quite sure what she had to say yet.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I knew that faith played an important role in this character’s life. She had wrestled with her perception of herself as a sinner, she had quoted Scripture to another character. But there was something so intimate about this scene, about her speaking directly to her God.
The process of writing fiction is one of compassion. Of empathy. Unless you are writing nothing but your own life story (and, I would argue, even then), you are embarking on a journey of radical empathy. As a writer, you must imagine the interiority of each of your characters, and those characters will often have qualities you don’t share. Henry James captured the experience of a young girl during her parents’ divorce in What Maisie Knew with exceptional emotional accuracy, which I have always taken as my own permission slip for writing about people who are not me. Yes, I can write about a character who isn’t like me, as long as I do my research and approach the whole of the character with loving attention.
For a few weeks, my manuscript had [insert prayer here] in the spot where I knew her words would be. I was beginning to doubt whether I would be able to finish this scene the way I wanted. I felt entirely unqualified to write a prayer. I wanted to scrap the whole scene, backspace over that whole embarrassing falling-to-her-knees thing. Then one morning, before dawn, I woke and the words were there, echoing through my mind.
For me, it would have been more comfortable for my character to simply reflect in her own mind. To think about what she’d learned, about how far she’d come. That is what rational, agnostic me would do. But my character is not me. When I heard her prayer, I knew that it was right; I knew this was exactly how she would process her gratitude. It turns out, radical empathy isn’t always comfortable. It might take you a little out of your comfort zone. But in writing, as in life, it’s the only way to make it all worth it.