How literature and life intersect via character development
I decided to take some scientifically-driven quizzes online via Buzzfeed.
Well, I wasn’t surprised at all by the results. I took three, and I was pleased to learn I am just like Jo from Little Women! Ah, but the other two quizzes claimed I am just like Elizabeth Bennet! Smart, witty, cynical… and convention, be damned, amIright, Jo March?
In all seriousness, I’ve been dismayed by what appears to be a lack of self-reflection in much of what I read online. I’ve been reading (over the past half a decade or longer) online pieces, poetry, essays, by writers who claim to be writers, but it seems as though the public sphere has become a breeding zone for writers with a particular type of personality that ought to be called Ouroboros Syndrome (not the video game…)
The incessant regurgitation of the Self, over and over, and in different permutations, isn’t foreign in literature and by literary figures. Meta-fiction, authorial intrusion, the confessional poets from the mid-20th century, but storytelling isn’t about the author, it’s about the reader, story, and why you’re the writer to tell it.
Whenever I’ve spoken to groups about writing, I’ve maintained that in order to be a great writer, you must develop compassion and empathy. If you don’t, you’ll not only fail as a writer, I’d submit to you that you’ll also fail as a human being.
Maybe that’s a bit harsh. But things that have proved true time and again sometimes are.
That said, I want to talk about sympathy, empathy, fauxpathy, antipathy and apathy, and how they present in literature and life and their impact on storytelling.
FEELING, SUFFERING, MORBID AND DISEASED AFFECTION! WOW!
1. a combining form occurring in loanwords from Greek, where it meant “suffering,” “feeling” (antipathy; sympathy); in compound words of modern formation, often used with the meaning “morbid affection,” “disease” (arthropathy; deuteropathy; neuropathy; psychopathy), and hence used also in names of systems or methods of treating disease (allopathy; homeopathy; hydropathy; osteopathy).
Now that we know the suffix’s roots and ways it’s employed today, let’s look at each word individually and explore their roles in character development.
We were taught or told to create sympathetic characters. Why is that?
Because we want to like who we’re reading about. Writing a character who is, from the get-go, repulsive, only works in certain books and it must be finessed. Worst. Person. Ever by Douglas Coupland earned a place on my best. Books. Ever. shelf in my office because his character’s total lack of self-awareness creates situations that both satisfy our need for his downfall, but also celebrate his tiny redemptions and yes, moments of revenge.
Coupland writes such a captivating, hilarious (and yes, slightly offensive) tale, it’s impossible to not love this book unless you’ve got a rather large, long object up your wazoo.
As a human being, we feel sympathy FOR someone—we feel a commiseration, compassion, even. But it’s different from empathy in that we can behave in sympathetic ways, but there’s no way to “behave with empathy.” More on that later.
Characters we sympathize with are usually terribly human and flawed. Sometimes they’re heroic. They might have some bad luck or other external events occur that create interest, but the magic is in how the author introduces and develops their character, the fictionalized person you, the reader, will be investing time and emotional energy into. But unless it’s a series, that “character” is the author—arguably the first character in every book we read, because we don’t know their characters yet.
Don’t confuse sympathetic characters for empathetic characters. In order to write believable, sympathetic characters, you, the author, must have true empathy, not for your characters and not for yourself. True empathy for the human condition and humanity.
Empathy is something you share with others. It’s not a passing feeling, it’s a state of mind, and sometimes it’s easier to cut empathy off at the knees, because true empathy hurts. It takes a level of emotional energy that’s rarely or easily found in others, and difficult to cultivate in yourself unless you work hard at it.
Writing a character who has empathy is the crux of their development. It’s not the first impression, it’s their arc. The events that turn your character into 3-D should occur in the first chapter. The events over the course of the story should turn your character into a real human being in the minds of your readers.
You cannot behave as if you feel empathy and have it be true empathy, and likewise, you cannot write a character from a place of empathy if you have none. Writing a character who is without empathy can be successful or disastrous, depending on how it’s handled.
Finding out why a serial killer is so awful (boilerplate excuse: abusive parents, sexual abuse, etc.) isn’t half as interesting as seeing a believable shift in their (supposedly) unchangeable behavior, making them more human, and even more unsettling.
But whatever moves the serial killer, or the antagonist of the story, better not be this next one, my own special word for what I keep seeing online and experiencing in real life on occasion.
When I think of fauxpathy, I’m reminded of the delightful portrayal of Marvel Studio’s Loki, by Tom Hiddleston. We want, so badly, for Loki to change, be the good person we KNOW he is on the inside, only to have him oops, he did it again, he played with their hearts, and now… they’re screwed.
Oh, but we wanna believe him. Believe IN him. He makes all the right sounds with his mouth. He makes all the right faces, and his eyebrows show the right amount of consternation and “empathy.” But it’s not true empathy, it’s fauxpathy and we must know that, because Loki wouldn’t be half as interesting if he weren’t somewhat of… well, a trickster.
As for human beings, it’s socially repulsive to not show the proper amount of sorrow when terrible things happen to people, especially people we love. Typically, a false show of empathy is done in an overblown way. It often feels tone-deaf and a little… off. The knitted eyebrows, the mm-hmm, oh, mm-sounds that come across so darn sincere, but this is where the distinction shows up.
“So you know how I told you how difficult it would be for me to make it to your art show? I tried, but I can’t go. I’m sorry.
“Oh it’s totally fine, I get it. You take care of you!”
But, they don’t ‘get it.’ You probably hear it from someone else, and if you confront them about how they said they understood, fauxpathy shows its ugly head.
How could you, why didn’t you, and worst of all, how dare you not read my mind and intuit what I needed?
‘Cause it’s allllllll about them and it always was, and whatever vulnerable thing you shared will end up being disregarded or packed away for future ambushes. You see it all the time on television dramas.
Fauxpathy in literature shows up in cardboard “mean girl” or “dastardly-male” characters, and we want the protagonist to see right through it, but they don’t, because like us, they want to believe in the inherent goodness of the other. But it ain’t there, and that, of course, lends to the protagonist’s arc, as with Steinbeck’s protagonist, Ethan Hawley, from The Winter of Our Discontent and Margaret Atwood’s character, Offred, in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Disingenuousness isn’t new. We’ve just improved on it in the digital age with the cunning use of bullshit, emojis, and code.
Characters that repulse us are often the most memorable, but that’s different than repulsive characters that cause a knee-jerk aversion in readers. Characters who feel entitled to their bad behavior, or who make excuses for it via “trauma” or feelings of superiority are the most repulsive characters in fiction and real life, and frankly, I can’t find any decent examples in good fiction.
The closest I come to it is in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the book, not the musical.
The book does a hard, cold number on Javert, until the moment we see where he comes from. Self-loathing does account for an astonishing number of horrible human beings who project that out onto the world and others.
What’s fascinating about Javert isn’t his inability to reconcile the imperfect nature of the legal system, but his unwillingness to try since his entire world and sense of self stems from the execution of merciless justice.
As a vagabond, gypsy-raised child living hand-to-mouth, his only control as an adult is to use the law to exact his own brand of black-and-white justice. Self-examination wasn’t ever in the cards, until it was—which is why he had to end his own life.
His death was the only sacrifice Javert could offer on the altar of ambiguity and the author knew this would be the only way this character could be redeemed.
In other words, we were not meant to feel apathetic toward Javert despite how merciless his actions were.
I’ve often said, and heard, that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy, and I’m inclined to agree. There is nothing worse than a character who remains apathetic throughout the story, and who, in turn, I feel apathy towards as a reader.
That apathy turns, sometimes, to irritation and anger because I read the book in good faith. But, as in The Wallcreeper, by Nell Zink, the character said all the right words, did some of the right things, and so why didn’t I feel any connection to her?
Because Tiffany, the main character, was completely passive, and lacked the self-reflection in her first-person subjectivity that rubbed me the wrong way and smelled of a kind of self-indulgent entitlement filled with apathy. WHen I wrote a review of the book, someone posted, “Wow, you sure didn’t get this book, did you?”
Hm. I’d written a rather detailed review, so pretty sure I got it. I asked the commenter if she’d share her review with me, so I could understand better what I was missing, but what she clearly saw.
The worst sort of apathy is seeing someone stare in the face of true suffering and show a total lack of care, concern, or even curiosity about it. It’s spine-chilling to think of someone purposefully allowing another person to writhe around in their own pain alone—ALONE. And that’s the opposite of empathy to me: allowing someone to suffer alone, even when you could help them feel less alone by simply showing up.
If you read a character, the hero, who behaved that way, why would you or anyone want to continue the book?
In The Stranger, by Albert Camus, the main character, Meursault, was socially tried and convicted because he showed a lack of remorse for his actions. In the end, though, what got him sentenced to death was his apathetic response to his mother’s death. But he wasn’t apathetic.
He simply didn’t have that kind of relationship with his mother. What really nailed him was that he didn’t care about convention like others expected him to. Rather than fight convention, like Jo March, he simply avoided it.
In other words, he had antipathy for fauxpathy (say that 10 times fast…), and I’m incredibly sympathetic to that and for him as a character.
Writing believable characters is incredibly difficult to do. Writing characters that jump from off the page and into, not just a reader’s psyche, but into the collective unconscious, is incredibly important. It’s something to strive toward as you write your stories. It’s something to strive for as you live your life.
Buzzfeed won’t tell you anything you don’t want to believe already. Who wouldn’t want to be Arya Stark or Jo March or Harry Potter?
“…I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned. If you know despair or can see it in others.”
From the poem “Self-Portrait,” by David Whyte, this line, and all the rest, is my living-writing philosophy, what I strive toward as an individual and a writer and poet. I’m never perfect, I always mess up, but that’s what the “striving” is about. Pursuit, not attainment, is where the truth of who you are will emerge, but only if you’re courageous enough, humble enough, wise enough to allow it to teach you, not the other way around.
There is no immediate rush of dopamine when you write a novel. There are no “claps” or “likes” that follow. There’s only you and your humanity and all the ways you’ve learned to connect with humanity throughout your life. It can’t be taught, but it can be modeled, experienced, practiced, and you can make a conscious decision to see the world in ways that add to your empathy as a writer versus things that detract from it.
A famous poet once told me that in order to be a great writer, you have to want to do it more than anything else. Eh, maybe.
I prefer to believe that in order to be a great writer, you have to persist in living your best life, strive to be your best self, and from that place, write. Because the “wanting to do it more than anything else” really should be a given if you’re a writer.
But if all you are is a writer, and that’s all you do, your writing will show it: a lack of humanity and lack of understanding for the human experience.
I’m not sure if that’s an author, book, or human being I’d want to invest anything in.
Je te vois, and as always,