It’s been four months since my post Interior Life Part One. I didn’t forget to write this promised follow-up on empathy in fiction – the topic is never far from my mind. Like many of you I have the dual vantage point of being both reader and writer, and for all my love of plot and structure and language, there’s no literary preoccupation that fascinates me more. And none is more subjective or resistant to generalisation – every book is different, as is every reader – so these are just my views (even if I talk about ‘we’) and I hope to hear yours in return.
Empathy is defined as ‘the ability to identify with and understand somebody else’s feelings or difficulties.’ In everyday life we often talk about ‘putting ourselves in [other person’s] position’ or ‘seeing things from their point of view’. I think of it as a kind of displacement, where we take a step toward another person (often when it would be easier to retreat) with a willingness to give something: time, attention, compassion. In that moment, it’s mostly about them. It’s an emotional investment and when it comes to fiction, it’s most likely to happen when you forget you’re even reading a story. You are immersed. Connected. You can relate.
And for that you need characters who feel like real people (interesting ones, that is). Notice that I don’t say that you necessarily need to like them. Looking at Amazon reviews, ‘I didn’t like any of the characters’ is a frequent complaint – I’ve occasionally found myself saying it as a kind of shorthand when what I actually meant was that I found them flat, implausible, the dreaded cardboard cut-out. They failed to get under my skin. (Although sometimes I did just really dislike them. It happens.)
It’s a big task to create people out of thin air, creating dimension from layer upon layer of traits, motivations and contradictions, let alone making total strangers believe in them and care what becomes of them. How does any author actually make this work? The novelist alone has sustained access to a character’s interior life (emotions, thought processes, etc) which is a powerful tool, albeit dependent on a well-orchestrated conflict for its full effect. We respond not to the person in neutral (that has no place in a novel) but in the particular dramatic situation they face, whether it is of their own making, down to fate, forces of antagonism – including other characters – or a combination of these.
The obvious challenge is that (thankfully) we don’t all respond in the same way to the same set of variables. Not long after I started writing fiction, I heard someone say that 60% of the response to a work of fiction comes from within the reader. I have failed to locate the source (if it exists) but I do remember thinking two things: firstly, how can that possibly be measured? and secondly, that 60% is enormous. Since then I have started this blog, read hundreds of novels, written two of my own and spent countless hours talking to readers, and I am not only convinced that we bring far more of ourselves – our backgrounds, experiences and beliefs – to the act of reading than I previously thought, but that there’s a limit to how far the writer can or should seek to influence the reader’s emotional response.
People are just too unpredictable. I’ve been part of a book group with six other women for twelve years. They are amongst my closest friends yet I love not having a clue how any of us (myself included) will react to any given book. If there was a roadmap to readers’ hearts we writers would be trampling each other in the stampede to the bank – in reality it is hard to foresee what will work or fall flat. Some hugely successful novels described as heart-wrenching have left me cold or even furious, whereas others like M L Stedman’s The Light between Oceans had me sobbing uncontrollably.
I empathised so strongly with the cast of Maylis de Kerangal’s heart transplant novel Mend the Living (11 February, trans. Jessica Moore), one of my Hot Picks 2016, that it has left a lasting impression. No book will ever move me that way if I feel manipulated; I dislike being steered by the writer or pressured by popular opinion – I’ll be the judge of what tears me up inside. Sometimes our responses can be explained, sometimes not – it’s really quite mysterious – but justifying them is optional and respecting others’ right to a different opinion is a form of empathy in itself.
Good fiction is never entirely ‘made up’. It has the capacity to deepen our understanding and tolerance of ourselves, other people and the world we live in. It may be a cliché but through fiction we get to ‘live more than one life’ (or words to that effect). Through reading I have experienced previous centuries, places I will never go, people I will never be. I have walked alongside characters who are enslaved, addicted, destitute, terminally ill, trapped in the wrong body, in dysfunctional relationships or beautiful crazy love affairs (it was all starting to sound a bit dark there). I have laughed out loud, nodded and shaken my head at family dynamics I recognise. I have, inevitably, encountered subjects that are painful to me and felt the comfort of ‘I’m not alone’ – one of the reasons I am not in favour of trigger warnings. Another is the insight and inspiration I have gained from other writers’ courage and generosity. Reading may be a solitary pursuit at one level but I’m as excited by the way it unites people.
Recently, following a lively book discussion with a friend by email, I sent him a short story of mine. His reply wasn’t the first time someone’s told me ‘that has completely changed my view of you’ (and something tells me it won’t be the last…) I seem to have come full circle to the conclusion of my first post, that we’re all a lot of things, many of them hidden from view. And through reading and writing, there’s no limit to what we can live and feel and be.
What’s your take on this?