Empathy and Responsibility in Writing

Generally speaking, I try to focus this blog on “how you might write” rather than “what you should be writing.” We’re about craft here, not art–not because one is more important than the other, but because there are a lot more places to talk about the latter than the former. This entry is an exception.

Let’s talk about empathy and the moral responsibility of the writer.

Suppose you’ve got an audience of a million people for your AAA video game, broadly representative of the American population (because these days, everyone loves games!) As you hash out your plot, think about your audience for a second and ask yourself: Are you comfortable with the story you’re telling to them and about them? Would you be prepared to sit in a room and justify your artistic choices, one-on-one, to your players?

  • If you’re not Hispanic, are you prepared to justify to a Hispanic person how you cast (or didn’t) Hispanic characters?
  • If you’ve never been a sex worker, are you prepared to justify to a sex worker your story’s handling of strippers and prostitutes?
  • If you’ve never been in the military, are you prepared to justify your war story to a veteran?
  • If you’re a man, are you prepared to justify to a woman the casting and portrayal of women in your story?
  • If you’ve never been in a gang, are you prepared to justify your crime story to a gang member?
  • If you’ve never been disabled, are you prepared to justify your handling of a paraplegic character?

These aren’t the only people and experiences you should be thinking about–this is a grab-bag of “things games have historically handled poorly.” But you see the pattern. I began writing this post to offer a rule of thumb for sensitively handling sexual violence in games, but then decided such a rule has much broader applications; “could you justify this in a one-on-one conversation” is an approach that works for so many things.

If the thought of people in the above groups (or the group of your choice) engaging with your story makes you uncomfortable… think hard about why that is. Most folks can handle opposing viewpoints, but are much less easygoing about being portrayed inaccurately, or as a stereotype, or as something less than a three-dimensional human being. Or if you can’t picture that personal conversation at all, why not? If you can’t even start to form that image, surely you don’t know enough about Group X to do it justice in your portrayal.

Of course, the fact that you are prepared to justify your handling of Topic Y doesn’t mean you’re right. Maybe you feel your over-the-top depiction of gun violence is so far in the realm of fantasy that it doesn’t convey any real-world message; maybe you did your research about life under the Khmer Rouge and you’re pretty sure you’re conveying as accurate a picture as you can. Ultimately, you’re the one who has to make the call. You could still be wrong. But be sure you’re as certain as you can reasonably be.

And if you do think you might be wrong, consider this as well: Are there other voices out there–other games, other narratives–that convey an alternative viewpoint? Or are you the only one showing characters of this particular type at all? In the former case, you can afford to be a little more slipshod; not that you want to neglect your responsibilities to truth, but if you fail, the consequences are mitigated. In the latter case, you’re potentially doing something useful but you also have a special level of responsibility–bad representation isn’t always superior to no representation.

And what if your portrayal is a common one, but not one derived from personal experience? That is, what if there are plenty of other narratives out there featuring characters of Background Z, but they all tend to treat them in a similar fashion? Again, the harm you inflict by going along with that trend is probably pretty minimal even if it’s an unfair portrayal–but it doesn’t excuse you from taking time to reflect on your writing, or from doing your research.

And that’s all this post is really about: Reflection, research, and empathy. Cover those three bases and you’ve done what you can. You can’t ever really speak for anyone else (no matter how similar to you that person may be), but that’s the mantle you’re picking up all the same, every time you write any character.

The least you can do is try to do people justice.