Monday Motivation: How empathy helps you create better characters
Writing fiction requires that you deliberately trigger out-of-body experiences. You create characters whose consciousness you attempt to inhabit, so that you might the better be able to describe, from the inside, what that character sees, feels, thinks, hears…
It’s a kind of empathy, right, of which I’ve written before. But it’s not quite the empathy you hope your offspring might develop in their haphazard journey through childhood.
Empathy is, we hope, more often exercised in appreciating the plight of the downtrodden, or the unhappy, than in understanding, say, the deeper desire of the psychopath. We observe a child standing desolate in the ruins of a Syrian town, and our heart goes out to him. It is, perhaps, the abandoned child in ourselves that reaches out in spirit to the abandoned child in the smoking debris of Aleppo.
But when we’re writing, the kind of empathy we seek to develop is very different. We seek to identify within ourselves analogues not only for the weak and the pilloried, but for rogues and deceivers, liars and cheats. We want to know what sort of man could put a finger to a button and unleash a missile on a town filled with fleeing refugees.
We want to know, as Vassily Grossman did, what it feels like to be Hitler, or Stalin.
But we are, after all, only who we are: ordinary writers who in all likelihood have never meet a suburban Stalin. I often wonder whether, in all the years I’ve attended dinner parties, I’ve sat unknowingly at a table with a murderer – a successful murderer, whose crime has never been uncovered. (I like to think I have.)
But my point is that our ordinary experience does not encompass many – if any – of the darker members of society.
We have to imagine ourselves into some really dodgy characters whose like we have never met.
Which brings me to a singular problem, and that is that, for the most part, the characters we do create are more or less like us. They’re probably just as emotional, or emotionless; just as prone to anger, or not; just as romantic or jaded as we are.
So what’s the solution?
Two suggestions. One, dig deeper into the character, past the stereotype to the real breathing human being below. This might not be a comfortable experience. And I bet you that the deeper you dig the more disconcerted you’ll be by the similarities you discover between your psycho-killer and yourself.
And two: dig deeper into yourself. Seek out the darker impulses of your soul. Find that abandoned child in you. Or the glee it’s possible for even a highly moral person (like yourself) to find in lying… or cheating… or betrayal. Remember what Walt Whitman said: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
There is in all of us the potential to be almost anything. Writers have to trace the threads of possibility back to the source, deep down, in, to quote W.B Yeats again, the foul rag and boneshop of the heart.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Drama leaks away in retrospect – in life and story‘
Stow-on-the-Wold Writing Weekend: 7 – 9 June