October 28, 2019

Fiction, Imagination, and Empathy: Part 2

By Rebecca Dwight Bruff

Fiction requires imagination. Fiction demands that we imagine the lives and experiences of other people, people who are not us, and not like us. And even though we’re “making it up”, we want to get it right. We want, and our readers want, our characters to be believable, and to be appropriately represented.

I discovered, almost as soon as I began working on Trouble the Water, that there were innumerable things I didn’t know about my characters. I knew a few dates and places and lineages and accomplishments. But their lives and mine were separated by more than a century. Their experiences, perspectives, motivations, world-views, family systems, hygiene habits, vernacular – and a thousand other things – vastly different from my own.

So how do we bridge such historical and contextual distance? How do we write what we don’t know?

Check your assumptions and presumptions. I had to acknowledge from the start that I don’t know what it’s like to be male. Or illiterate. Or enslaved. And even though I (vaguely) remember being 22 years old, I don’t know what it was like to be 22 years old in 1862 in Charleston.

Pay attention to what you do know. Most of us do know what it’s like to long for something, to love someone, to grieve deeply. Most of us have been inexpressibly angry, or frightened, or passionate, or ecstatic or envious. Our deepest personal emotions are, paradoxically, universal. Tap into what you know about human emotion, and bring it to the page.

Ask good questions. “What is like to…?” “ How does it feel when…?”  I had several long and enlightening conversations with a 30 year-old African American man; he knew I was working on a book and I asked him to tell me about some of his experience. We learned about one another’s lives, and we’re better for it.

Read. Read periodicals and journals from the time period you’re writing about. Read the history. Read first-hand accounts if they exist; I read slave narratives, and diaries of slave-holders, and journals of abolitionists. Read outside of your own experience, interests, and biases.

Learn about personality types. What makes people tick? What motivates a humanitarian, or a narcissist, or an adventurer? How and why do people change or not change their opinions and behaviors over time? Explore the disorders; surely at least one of your characters will benefit from your research.

Be bold! Imagine. Stretch your mind and your capacity and your reach. Give a damn about what matters to your characters, and give them the life to pursue it!
Rebecca Dwight Bruff is the author of the award-winning Trouble the Water: A Novel, inspired by the life of Robert Smalls:   Rebecca heard Smalls’ story on her first visit to South Carolina. She was so captivated that she left her job in Dallas, TX and moved across the country to research and write this book. Bruff earned her Bachelors degree in education (Texas A&M) and Master and Doctorate degrees in theology (Southern Methodist University).  In 2017, she was a scholarship recipient for the prestigious Key West Literary Seminar. She volunteers at the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, South Carolina.  She’s published non-fiction, plays a little tennis, travels when she can, and loves life in the lowcountry with her husband and an exuberant golden retriever.  Visit Rebecca at her website: and Instagram:, Twitter: or Facebook:

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