Stories from History: On Empathy

The nature of being a writer, of slinging words about for fun and profit, is that very often you spend a lot of time in the depths of a project ages before you’re able to talk about it. That’s where I am right now – working in the word mines on some pretty awesome projects that I can’t talk about.

That being said, I can talk about a part of this. The villains of this world bear a number of similarities to various movements that have occurred over the years. The entire writing team behind this project has had to deal with the very real reasons that people turn to various causes that can be extreme. We have villains who turn swaths of the population towards ends that we would find intolerable. Slavery, work camps, and more are part and parcel of the world of this project.

None of that is to laud these behaviours, but rather is an exercise in empathy. We’ve seen a lot in the world lately of various groups shifting and meandering towards increasingly extreme actions. Instead of doing the hand waving of “they do bad things because they’re evil”, I pushed to delve deep into the psychology and sociology of why these things happen, why people turn on their governments, and what makes a revolution built upon lofty ideals turn into something destructive.

At the end of the day, that’s required boatloads of empathy. All sorts of people that are altogether too much like us have committed atrocities for innumerable reasons. Many waffle, justify their tacit support for a regime by trying to take care of their own, trying to stay out of the larger world of politics. Others will latch on to the positive changes, trying to look past the negative. Still others have been waiting for the opportunity to do evil, whatever their reason.

This has taken me to some dark places, but I think it has been worth it. Understanding the world around is always a challenge for writers, and really all of us. We’re trying to grapple with complicated events, and even approaching evil activities lies within the ambit of things that we need to do sometimes. Even the evilest person tends to believe that they aren’t, and understanding how they are able to justify it to themselves. None of this is to justify any particular group, but rather to understand why they’re doing this.

One of my teachers once told me, “you show me a revolution, and I’ll show you the people starving.” It was an assertion that revolutions didn’t tend to happen until people were going hungry. There’s something to this – in my research, I saw that so often people will shrug their shoulders about various atrocities until it affects them. It is a tragedy, but there is something of a truth to it.

Even now, we can see various atrocities around the world are ignored. It’s easier. If we could possibly grapple with all of them at once, most of us would be overwhelmed.

All of that is fodder though, all of that are pieces that can be pulled together to explain why people do evil things. Understanding why is one of our jobs as writers, understanding the specifics of the how and why things happen.

As we’ve worked through this project, that’s been one of our main challenges. Ensuring that our villains are at once both evil, but they can be understood. They do evil things, but if the reader can understand and feel why they are doing it, the impact will be greater than what it was.

One of the greatest successes on this project has been convincing people that the evil villains of the setting are understandable. They’re flawed and broken people. By showing them the path that can be walked down, the alternatives that are out there, it adds depth and adds something to this.

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