Why am I spending time on Humans of New York
? (After all, it’s not as if this material isn’t already widely shared on the internet) Because I think that what site creator Brandon Stanton does has many good lessons for writers.
Ideally, every writer would do what Stanton is doing: for at least an hour a day, walk around talking to people on the street, collecting unique language, unique life details, and compelling real life ironies. Unfortunately most of us lack the time and/or temperament, but the good news is that we live in the golden age of information, so we now have sites like this that provide treasure troves of perfectly chosen character moments.
As writers, we have two nearly impossible jobs to do: first we must create a great unique-but-universal character, then we must succinctly
convey that greatness, that uniqueness, and that universality, in a flash, so that the character will swiftly blossom to life in the mind of the audience, allowing our stories to really begin.
And that’s what truly wonderful about Stanton’s work. It’s easy to credit the site’s success to his skill as a photographer and an interviewer, but there’s a third element that’s equally important: he’s a great editor
. He asks several questions designed to create emotional and unique responses, gets a chunk of material to work with from each person, and then he cuts all of that down to just the right snippet to instantly make these people fascinating. That’s a lot harder than it looks, and it’s a big part of our
Let’s look at some of the ways he makes certain subjects instantly likeable. The trick, of course, is empathy, and one thing he’s good at is making opposite types of people equally likeable.
This guy’s humility is instantly appealing:
Whereas this lady wins us over with her swagger:
We love this guy’s humble appreciation of his job:
And this guy’s yearning to escape his, expressed with such telling specificity:
We sympathize with this man’s poverty:
But we’re also sympathetic to the problems caused by this man’s wealth:
Fiction writers have to be all three types of god: All-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving
. Journalists such as Stanton, on the other hand, are denied the first because they cannot create their subjects, so they have to make up for it by focusing even more on the other two. They can’t let their confirmation bias
get in their way when they approach people, molding their subjects to fit their prejudices. Instead, they must remember that everyone has some personal detail that will earn our empathy, if only we can find it. This is true in real life, and so it must also be true in our fiction.