The Secret of Stories 

I played with Barbies until I was in high school. I kept this mostly to myself after I realised that the last few friends with whom I used to play had locked away their sets of Barbies in the attic or given them away to their little cousins, but I held on to mine for longer than I still care to admit sometimes. It wasn’t my childhood that I was so reluctant to let go of, and it wasn’t as though I had any particular attachment to the dolls themselves, but the reason that I continued to come back to them time and again was because of the stories I was able to create with them. With these dolls, these characters, I was off on an adventure in a world of my own design. I experienced the love, heartbreak, tension, sorrow and passion that the characters in my Barbie doll games went through. One day I was a sweet and innocent character, swept up in a dangerous situation I never saw coming, and the next I was a cruel and sinister character causing all sorts of trouble. I had to put myself in the mindset of all of the various characters that I created, and that meant that I had to understand them. Their desires, their motives, their flaws. 

And it’s the same with writing a story. Other than childhood games and storytelling, I can’t think of any other accessible creative activities that teach you what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, let alone someone else’s mind. We have to feel what it would be like to suffer loss if our character loses a loved one. We have to feel what it would be like to take a life if our character kills someone. We have to feel what it’s like to fall in love if our character falls in love. We all know what it’s like to watch a movie or read a book and feel empathy for the characters, but to write that, we have to first think and feel – not for another character – but as another character.

It’s for this reason that I usually start new students off with an exercise centered around perspective and have them write a story from the villain’s point of view. Often, kids will create a cliche villain – a pure evil character who is evil for the sake of evil. But, the thing is, we like to love the bad guys as much as we like to love the heroes, and to create a likable bad guy, we have to know what’s behind it. We need to know what happened to that character to make them the way they are. This can be really hard for some young kids to wrap their heads around, but once they understand it, it’s a revelation, not just from a storytelling angle, but from a general life angle. It is a step towards understanding the nuances of human nature, psychology and behaviour. Stories allow us to access the secrets of the world – things that are sensed and felt, but not properly understood. They connect us to the past, present and future and to every other person on the planet. We can see through the eyes of anyone we dare to create and in doing so, come to know pieces of ourselves that might otherwise have stayed hidden. 

When we write, we articulate things we don’t even realise we know, and we come to an awareness of ourselves that can only be discovered through story. At least, that was certainly the case for me, and it’s something that I’m constantly blown away to witness in the young writers who come to the studio regularly. Storytelling and empathy go hand in hand. A part of me envies those dolls and all the characters they used to play and the adventures they used to go on. Another part of me feels bad that I once pulled Barbie’s head off.