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Life, Writing

Interior Life Part Two – Empathy in Fiction

Mend the LivingIt’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?

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


18 thoughts on “Interior Life Part Two – Empathy in Fiction

  1. Beautifully put. I loved your statement:in reality it is hard to foresee what will work or falll flat. Yet some authors or publishers try to second-guess that and so we get formulaic books (but, thank goodness, also surprise hits).
    60% of the response comes from within the reader? Even if the percentage is not completely accurate, there is still so much that comes from within us. And we may not always respond in the same way, be consistent in ourselves. We need to be ‘ready’ for a certain book – and perhaps return to ones we discarded earlier, to see if we are more suited to them now (or they are more suited to us).

    Posted by MarinaSofia | February 2, 2016, 19:30
    • That’s a very good point, Marina, about the right book at the right time. It’s one of the reasons (although lack of time is the main one) why I rarely re-read books I have loved. A friend re-read The Secret History having loved it in her 20s, as did I, only to find it didn’t hold the same magic at all. Not something I’m willing to risk! But other novels, and Madame Bovary is the best example for me, have dimensions I can appreciate now that I certainly couldn’t have hoped to understand when I first read it at the age of 17!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 4, 2016, 11:36
  2. Really enjoyed this, Isabel. For me, the challenge of writing – and reading – is to empathise with characters I don’t immediately understand or care about. I don’t want to write/read about people I feel I already know because that would be boring (eg I would run a mile from any blurb which mentions the words ‘school run’). Your word ‘displacement’ is perfect.

    Posted by JulietW | February 2, 2016, 21:42
    • I so agree with you there, Juliet! I recently read a contemporary novel about ‘modern family’ and have come to the conclusion I can’t be doing with all that stuff about small kids any more. It reminds me why I felt the need to make another life for myself outside Muswell Hill. For me, some degree of familiarity can be a good thing and create a connection, too much and it becomes tedious.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 4, 2016, 11:41
  3. It’s great when a writer can make you empathise with a villain, as Hannah Kent does with a woman tried with murder in Burial Rites.

    Posted by writerlyderv | February 3, 2016, 08:55
    • Very true, and what a great example! That takes real skill (and villains – or morally ambiguous characters – need different dimensions just like any other.) The protagonist recently released from jail in the film ‘I’ve loved you so long’ (brilliantly played by Kristin Scott Thomas) is another example of creating empathy in what first appears a black-and-white situation.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 4, 2016, 11:46
  4. I found your article on “empathy in fiction” absolutely fascinating. As a prolific reader and a writer, it is a matter of constant interest to me how readers re-act to stories on an emotional level.
    I, too, found “The Light Between Oceans” heart-breaking. I fell in love with Tom myself and, like you, sobbed my heart out at the end of the story. Yet another book, just loaned to me by a friend with the warning “You will cry your eyes out”, which had subject matter which should have moved me emotionally, has left me without a tear in my eyes.
    As you remark, I believe the characters have to capture the imagination of the reader (even if they are unpleasant characters), so that the reader can identify in some way with their actions and empathize with their feelings. A good writer can endow even the most unlikely character with traits which elicit sympathy in the reader. I recently read “Crippen” by John Boyne, and he managed to give this notorious killer a pitiable side to his personality, which not only made him a well-rounded character, but also elicited the empathy of his reader.
    As I complete my novel, I am trying to keep in mind the fact that creating characters who come alive in the reader’s mind and with whom they can empathize is one of the main pointers to success.

    Posted by Anita Louise Jay | February 3, 2016, 09:06
    • Thanks for your lovely comment – I’m glad you enjoyed my piece. Interestingly, it wasn’t the ending of TLBO that got to me though it made me cry several times getting there (which is extremely rare for me). Being told a book will break my heart always makes me slightly wary – although it’s not as bad as being told a book has an amazing twist, which almost invariably ruins it for me. I think the key to creating the conditions for empathy is DEPTH of characterization rather than superficial ‘warmth’ or contrivances – unfortunately those are easy to spot and the moment I zone out. All the best with your novel!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 4, 2016, 11:52
  5. I completely agree with you on the subjectivity and individuality of responses to fiction. Reading is unique because it’s so private. Unlike watching film or TV, even the visual images are individually imagined by each reader. For that reason, readers are free to engage with a text without any social pressure. The ‘I didn’t like the characters’ refrain might be a defensive public reaction: ‘I say I only like nice characters because I want the world to think I’m a nice person.’
    Writers’ workshopping groups are fascinating in this respect. Often readers will note down very individual reactions if they write comments on a manuscript while reading alone in advance. Then in a group discussion those comments will often be radically changed in (unconscious?) pursuit of a collective consensus – often again designed to conceal our inner reactions and present a civilised book-club member world view to others.

    I agree that 60% statistic sounds like complete pseudo-psychological rubbish, as with most similar statistics. However, you’re right to say that fiction is most effective, as well as most economical, when it triggers recollections in the reader and encourages them to make their own connections. A perceptive comment about the way a character walks or pronounces a word or a description of a distinctive aroma can achieve more than dozens of words of more prosaic description.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | February 3, 2016, 09:44
    • Great contribution as always, thanks! I’m especially interested in your second point about how the individual response can so easily be sacrificed to the collective – I experienced that a lot in writing workshops and if you’re not careful you end up ‘writing by committee’. And when it comes to discussing books publicly, it takes courage to be the person saying ‘that didn’t move me’ and risk people thinking you’re a heartless monster. (I have to admit, my policy is to keep quiet – I know how hard it is to get a book published!) And your last point also resonates – too much trowelling on of detail or articulated emotion throws up a barrier between the reader and the story. Those tiny brushstrokes can be much more expressive.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 4, 2016, 11:57
  6. I love how you’ve written about empathy here, Isabel, and totally agree how the reading experience varies from person to person. I’m always baffled by how someone who seems similar to me in many ways it’s a book I’ve loved and vice versa. I suppose it’s because of the capacity of fiction to connect with a part of ourselves that’s hidden even from us.
    Unfortunately, I find a lot of commercial fiction approaches this in a shallow way, as if tragedy will automatically evoke a strong reaction in the reader – if overdone, however, that reaction can be fury as you say in your post.
    I’ve been following the (somewhat limited) research on reading and empathy, and there’s some interesting stuff happening now around “imagined contact” – which seems to me what reading does – helping us embrace diversity, leading to more creativity and adaptability. See The Social Brain which I’ve reviewed here:

    Posted by Annecdotist | February 3, 2016, 09:55
  7. I am not a great Fiction lover. More often a reader of Biographies/Autobiographies. Truth really is stranger and far more thought provoking than Fiction. I can certainly empathise with an author attempting to create their very own unique characters.
    Often I begin a book initially not liking the subject matter, purely from what I had previously heard of them in Media or read in the Press. I go into the book from a non-neutral stance. Often this initial presumption proves to be true.
    However it is surprising how many times the subject surprises me by previously unknown actions or indeed a really gentle, intelligent persona hiding inside a boxer for instance.
    Every human being is unique. Every one a character on Earth’s stage.

    Posted by William Clinton | February 3, 2016, 09:58
    • Thanks for your comment, especially as you’re not a fiction lover. I almost said in my piece that memoir can have a similar effect, so I can relate to your thoughts on autobiography and biography. It interests me that you would pick up one by someone about whom you already held a negative perception, but clearly it’s not good to be constrained by first impressions! It all comes back to people having all kinds of facets, some of which go undetected and have the power to surprise.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 4, 2016, 12:03
  8. The bit that jumps out at me from your blog is the phrase, “I’ll be the judge of what tears me up inside”. I agree that our reactions are all so individual, and I’m tired of being told just how this book will affect me, eg, ‘this book will change your life’ (really?!). How can anyone know? As a reader all I know is that I like lots of different kinds of stories (fiction & non-fiction) and I often prefer to discover them for myself. Of course there is a place for marketing (as a writer I’m all too aware of that), and it helps to know what others believe is good, but too often the really hyped up books disappoint.

    Posted by Marian Dillon | February 3, 2016, 16:44
    • Thanks for your comment. It’s a really tricky one, this (I’m also thinking about the book I’ve just written!) Blurbs have to make some kind of claim and it’s almost impossible to do that without leaving some readers feeling misled or disappointed. Like you I enjoy coming to a book ‘cold’, without preconceptions. There’s such a fine line between praise and hype and it’s interesting to realize that a lot of readers find hype off-putting. It certainly raises expectations, to a perhaps unrealistic level, yet sometimes of course it proves to be justified by our opinion!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 4, 2016, 12:09
  9. That 60% does seem hard to believe – until you think about wildly divergent opinions on certain books. And also shifts in response through time for individual readers, as you say – I have gone the whole circle with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, for example (loving the romance of them in my teens, feeling I’d outgrown them in my late 20s/early 30s, then returning to them, especially with admiration for the brilliance of their craft).

    It also strikes me that this sort of thing doesn’t really get addressed so often in the world of creative writing, or at least so obviously. A lot of attention is placed on structure and character motivation and the nuts and bolts of prose style, and tone and feeling are less obvious aspects of craft that a good writer needs to tackle.

    Posted by Andrew Wille | February 4, 2016, 21:13


  1. Pingback: Book Review – Maestra by L S Hilton | The Literary Sofa - November 2, 2016

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