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Writing the Universal Human Exprience August 14, 2021

The ultimate goal of many writers is to capture "the universal human experience." Literary authors strive to capture the minute details of the human experience, SFF authors use elves and aliens as metaphors for difficult parts of the human experience, romance and thriller writers use the most dramatic parts of the human experience to generate strong emotions in readers, etc.

This is a fine goal, but there's a common pitfall. Writers tend to assume their own personal human experience is the universal one.

To be fair, we each get only one human experience. We can't swap bodies, and we can't try out different timelines. We love to pretend we can in popular movies about literally walking in another person's shoes (Freaky Friday, Wish Upon a Star) or getting a second chance in life to make different choices (It's a Wonderful Life, Family Man, Thirteen Going on Thirty). But we can do that only in our imaginations. In reality, we get what we get.

So people judge what is "universal" from their own experiences and the stories of the people they encounter. If a person grows up in a bubble in which everyone they know lives the same way, and everyone they see on their preferred TV channels and websites also seems to live the same way, they'll naturally assume the rest of the universe is the same.

Have you ever been in a social situation where everyone present had something in common, except for you? Like everyone at your in-laws' Thanksgiving dinner grew up together, and they refer to old stories in vague terms and crack up while you quietly eat your turkey with no idea what's going on. Or everyone in a work-related group is many years older or younger than you, and they refer to some trend you're not familiar with and then say, "Everyone here remembers that, right?" And the others chime in, "Of course, we all do!" Except for you, obviously, but you don't matter.

That's how writers can accidentally make readers feel when they presume their own personal experiences are universal. In the attempt to create "relateable" worlds and characters, they can make readers feel excluded instead.

Assuming Collective Privilege

As I wrote in February, writers tend to be highly educated middle- and upper-class people with cushy lives. The fictional characters we read about also tend to be middle- or upper-class. Since the invention of the modern novel, innumerable obscenely wealthy families with beautiful daughters have fallen on mildly uncomfortable times. Countless gentleman detectives with nothing pressing to do have traveled to country mansions to solve murders at their leisure. Laborers and maids in romance novels don't remain laborers and maids—they turn out to be secret dukes and princesses, or they marry one.

When writers assume everyone lives as comfortably as they do, their attempts to create sympathetic characters can fall flat. For example, I often see the archetype of the free- spirited teenage girl who goes to the palace as a potential bride for the handsome prince or as the long-lost daughter of the king. She wreaks havoc by breaking all the rules while a frazzled maid or stuffy butler scuttles behind, comically begging her to stop. The audience is supposed to adore the heroine for being a "breath of fresh air," but many are more likely to identify with the poor maid whose job is on the line, and whose distress the author seems to think is funny.

Similarly, I've read many novels in which the author's idea of a life-ending tragedy is (a) breaking up with a romantic partner and/or (b) facing the horrific prospect of getting a job.

I couldn't get through one bestselling contemporary fiction novel because secondary characters gushed that the heroine was a "superhero" for going back to work in a library after her divorce. As a librarian, I'm chagrined to admit nothing we do approaches superheroic levels of self-sacrifice. It's a fun and comparatively low-stress white-collar career I struggled to launch for five years after graduate school. In fact, landing my first full-time librarian job was the high point of my twenties, when I felt like my bad luck was finally turning around and my future would be filled with sunshine and roses. But these characters were acting like getting a library job was the most lamentable of misfortunes, and this woman was Tess of the d'Urbevilles toiling to exhaustion to send money to her starving family.

Assuming a Shared Cultural Context

Last week I saw praise on Twitter for a craft book by an author of successful thriller novels. I found the eBook through my public library and checked it out.

Within the first few chapters, though, I knew this book wouldn't be helpful to me. The book was published in 2020, but the references in it were decades old. The popular movies cited as models of good storytelling were from the 20th century. A section about how to write natural dialogue suggested idioms and speech patterns I've never heard anyone use in my life. Reading the samples felt like looking at photos of 1980s fashion trends—at the time those clothes and hairstyles were so common, nobody thought they were weird, but if I were to dress the same way now, I'd look ridiculous.

Ironically, the author described an encounter with a young reader who complained that one of his heroines was unbelievable because her favorite ice cream flavor is butter brickle. "That's an old-man flavor," she scoffed. Even that anecdote must be dated, because I live in the author's home state and I've never seen an ice cream called "butter brickle" in any grocery store freezer. A young reader today is more likely to think, "That's a made-up flavor!"

When you're writing about a character who is exactly like you—same age, same race, same gender and hometown—casually throwing in details specific to your experience is fine. Great, even. No reader would take issue with a sixty-year-old man reminiscing about butter brickle ice cream and using slang that was hip when Cheers was the best show on TV.

The problem is when you accidentally impose these things on a character from a different background. The results can range from a little cringey, like a young woman eating old-man desserts, to grossly inaccurate, like a girl in 14th-century China showing how "strong" she's become by cutting her selfish mother out of her life in a rousing feminist speech. That happened in one YA novel I read in the early 2010s, which was written by a white American who explained in interviews that she visited Beijing once and really wanted to set a book there. If you want to teach teenage readers 21st-century American lessons, you can write about a 21st-century American protagonist. It's not cool to use a whole country as set dressing while overwriting its traditional culture with values you consider "better."

Evaluating Assumptions

In Stephen King's memoir On Writing, he describes writing as "telepathy" or "a meeting of the minds." He uses this example to demonstrate.

Look – here's a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Then he explains why he wrote the description with sparse detail, but readers will all see more or less the same scene in their heads:

It's easy to become careless when making rough comparisons, but the alternative is a prissy attention to detail that takes all the fun out of writing. What am I going to say, "on the table is a cage three feet, six inches in length, two feet in width, and fourteen inches high?" That's not prose, that's an instruction manual. The paragraph also doesn't tell us what sort of material the cage is made of—wire mesh? steel rods? glass?—but does it really matter? We all understand the cage is a see-through medium; beyond that, we don't care. The most interesting thing here isn't even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It's an eight. This is what we're looking at, and we all see it.

There's an unspoken assumption behind the telepathy that allows us all to see the same thing: that the reader and the writer have shared experiences and a shared vocabulary to describe them. If they don't, the "magic" falls apart.

The assumptions King makes in this particular passage are safe. Most people have seen pet cages and rabbits, and both are common enough to be uninteresting compared to the unusual feature of a number inked on the rabbit's back. We have to make assumptions like this, or we couldn't write anything.

Other assumptions that are pretty safe to make about the human experience:

  • We've all found joy and delight in beautiful things, tasty foods, and novel experiences.
  • We've all loved and depended on other people: family members, friends, mentors, partners.
  • We've all been devastated by the loss of a personal treasure, a beloved pet, a loved one, etc.
  • We've all been disrespected by someone and felt angry and threatened.
  • And so on.

But there are other types of assumptions that deserve closer scrutiny:

  • We've all had middle-class experiences like staying at summer camp, taking a road trip to a national park, going shopping with friends just for fun, and checking in to a nice hotel.
  • We all had the luxury of partying it up and taking risks in college.
  • We all think nakedness is shameful, body hair is gross, fat people are lazy, drinkers are fun and teetotalers are uptight, men should earn more than their women, and other learned cultural values.
  • We will all identify with the white and Christian main character, even if he commits a teeny bit of genocide.

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