Listen, fool…

“The first and most important requirement is an understanding of human nature. … A man learns nothing when he talks; he learns by listening. Which is why those who talk the most are, in the ordinary run of things, fools.” – Essay on Novels, The Marquis de Sade

More writing advice from the esteemed (alright, notorious and dubious) Marquis de Sade. He is onto something, however.

Writers need to be students. Students of all that life has to inform us. I am a firm believer in reading, observing, listening and contemplating (possibly to a fault – I do drift off sometimes into my own private world of wonder). How else can a writer put him or herself into the mind of a character –a character who does not share your own life’s experience, beliefs, opinions, motivations, desires or biases?

Ask the why and the what for? What motivates people to do the things they do? Is it a lust for power, wealth, fame? Or duty, honor and family obligation?  Or most nobly, for love?

Observe people talking to their partners across the table at a restaurant. What do you gather from their facial expressions? Is it a romantic evening or is tension in the air? What can you gather by listening to the person next to you on the train as they talk on the phone? Is it business, a family matter, personal? (I am not advocating stalking, FYI!)

Just like traveling to the location we wish to use as our setting so as not to get it wrong, the characters we write also need to be authentic. And thus as we listen and observe, we then become empaths, placing ourselves in the situations we wish to write about.

And in the spirit of the above advice, I will stop talking and let the marquis’ words stand on their own.

Image thanks to NPR

32 thoughts on “Listen, fool…

  1. Love this! It’s one of the best-and possibly worst- feelings to put yourself into the mind of a character you’re writing (or reading). I’m an avid people watcher. Just as long as I don’t have to talk to them, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. True! I love to watch! 😉 In the fan fiction I used to write, there was a very big tradition of killing off a hated character in the worst way possible. I just can’t do it. Not even for that slimy guy. 😄

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah the Divine Marquis is full of sage writing advice. This one is brilliant. He would make a very good creative writing teacher. As regards killing of a character, Nabokov said that every writer shouldn’t be free of sadistic impulses towards his characters (he certainly wasn’t). Lolita is full of references to De Sade. I am loving the De Sade writing course. He pops up everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Essay on Novels really is practical and timeless. I’m trying to come up with a post with his advice about avoiding moral ernestness. “Morality is not something anyone wants in a novel.” I love it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I couldn’t agree more. That was groundbreaking advise back then, Virtue always had to triumph. You can see how morality ruined Lewis Carroll’s later books. He had quite rightly worried that Alice didn’t contain a didactic lesson and set about correcting the omission to dire effect. One of the reasons that Alice is brilliant is because it was the first children’s book not to contain a moral to the story.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Too true: the owl he was a wise old bird … the more he spoke the less he heard … the more he heard the less he spoke … there never was such a wise old bloke. Sometimes we are wise when we abstain from speech.


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