Nancy: The Problem with Empathy

malice-toward-noneOdds are, if you’re a creative person, you use your creative expression to process and make sense of the world around you. Knowingly or unknowingly, you also might be working out your personal issues in your work. This lesson came home to me a few weeks ago when I realized a struggle I was having with a character on the page was the very same struggle I was having with some real-world people in my life.

The character in question is an antagonist who did a terrible thing to the protagonist’s best friend years earlier, and that bad act comes back to haunt all of them in the present in the story. The real-life people I’ve referenced have recently stated beliefs and claimed values I didn’t realize they had, and I can’t make peace with it. In both cases, I’ve lost my capacity for empathy, and it’s a problem.

A few months ago, I posted about writing as our superpower. One of the things that makes that power so super and immutable and important is the ability to make readers walk in the shoes of the ‘other’. Stories take us places we’d never go in real life and introduce us to people we’d never meet otherwise. It’s especially important that an author empathize (and make the reader empathize) with the protagonist, even when she’s doing stupid or dangerous or infuriating things. Even when she’s weak or making bad choices or not living up to the challenges we’ve given her. Empathy allows us to go deep with the character to understand why she’s making these choices, because within the bounds of the story, we view the world and feel her feelings from her perspective. But what about the antagonist, especially if s/he goes into some seriously dark territory and does some truly heinous things?

When it came to my own antagonist for this new story, I was having a hard time finding a way into his world. I could figure out his motivations/justifications he would make, I could come up with the delusional excuses he would tell himself to make his devastating actions make sense or even seem like the only option in his world. But I couldn’t really call it empathy. Not for this guy. Not for this crime.

Enter real life, in one of those aha! moments that turn a problem on its head so you can ponder it from a different angle. On Saturday, I attended one of the sister marches of the March on Washington. If you’ve been anywhere on the internet for the past womens-march-signs-in-dcfew days, you’ve no doubt seen some of the wonderful and funny and inspiring signs protesters carried. One that stuck with me said, “I will not tolerate intolerance.” Later I realized that this, THIS was what I’d run up against in my story and my life. I can see  the underlying fears that might lead people to hold those views. I can realize there are life experiences (or lack thereof) that cause misunderstanding and lack of knowledge about ‘the other’ that allows lies and suspicion to fester. I can even acknowledge there are differences in our brains make some people more tolerant of messages and threats that I process as authoritarian and possibly worse. But I won’t tolerate intolerance, love hatred, or be open-minded about bigotry. I can’t take that extra step into empathy for these world views and values. I have found my line in the sand, but I have not found and might not ever find a way to cross it.

I’m still processing what this all means for my writing process and my characters, particularly my oh-so-problematic antagonist. Maybe understanding his motivations and acknowledging the experiences that have brought him to his world view is enough. But I want to take care not to write him as a cliche or to write his crime or its aftermath as gratuitous, and I worry that without that empathetic perspective, that deep-dive understanding, I run the risk of doing just that.

Have you read a story with a well-rounded, non-cliche character for whom you intellectually ‘understood’ motives, but with whom you couldn’t empathize? Have you written a character like that? What did you do to ensure your reader wouldn’t close the book or throw it against the wall?

9 thoughts on “Nancy: The Problem with Empathy

  1. Some years ago, I wrote a book with an evil character. I gave him a POV, and I gave the victims a POV and agency. In the end, the victims prevailed and the evildoer was brought to justice, but from the reviews on Amazon, it’s clear that most readers didn’t get that far, because they’d thrown the book against the wall. I don’t know what that means, exactly, in terms of how I handled the characters. I did my best with the story I wanted to tell. But as we say, the writers are only half of the book experience.

    • I don’t think my antagonist will get a POV, so that’s perhaps a bit easier for the reader. I’m not sure that helps me as the writer, though, at least far as needing to ‘go deep’ in order to round out the character. At this point, I’ll probably just write through it and look for input on the other side from critiquers.

  2. That’s interesting, Kay. Last year I bought a romantic thriller/suspense story because the author is a member of RWA and I love what she has to say about writing. I gave up on her book after a handful of pages because the antagonist was so deeply and brilliantly written that I found myself sharing his brain and it scared the wits out of me. I’m sure he got his just deserts eventually, but I didn’t wait to find out. He was compelling and totally non-cliche, but I couldn’t bear to spend another moment in his dark, twisted, evil head.

    • Wow, that must have been really intensely-written character! As I said above, I’m not planning to have the antagonist’s POV, but I still don’t want a cliche. One of the characters I re-read in part when wrestling with this problem was Jack Randall from Outlander. But honestly, in both the book and TV series, I think he is pretty one-dimensionally evil. (At least in book 1 and season 1. I haven’t read any other books of the series or gotten to season 2 of the TV show.)

    • I know what you mean, Jill, about not wanting to read any more of something that squicks you out. That’s happened to me, too. In the case of my reviews, some people seemed to think that I endorsed my character’s evil doing, or some of them thought I’d just written “filthy trash,” I think someone said. That caught me a bit by surprise. Nobody said, oh, what an evil villain.

  3. Nabokov made me as made as hell. What he does in Lolita for Humbert Humbert is just . . . terrifying. After I finished the book, I was totally like, “Well, I never have to read that again.” But certain scenes still haunt my memory, and sometimes I want to read it again to see how he did that trick. Thank god we can’t all be Nabokovs, that’s what I say.

    I wind up reading an awful lot of fiction with horrible people in it. I put up with it mostly because it seems the writer sticks with the main character who is getting a reward of some sort (or is funny or otherwise treats me, the reader, to all sorts of delights).

    As the writer, you’ll probably be in that horrible character’s head a lot more than the reader has to be. At this point, it’s just a decision. Do you have to write this? (I think since it came up, you probably should, and it might be good for you in the long run, but it’s up to you. If you can abandon the jerk character and still write, then you are good. If you abandon the jerk character and find every other good thing blocked, then you are in trouble and have my sympathies.) Can you short-story it to get it out of your head and get your mind onto new, more rewarding projects?

    I wish I could write like PG Wodehouse, and do it all the time. I have a feeling, though, he repressed his good share of bad emotions, and it all had to come out sideways into Bertie Wooster and his aunts. Why can’t we all be Wodehouses? Staying back with the Nazis because the dogs can’t be moved . . . . Sigh.

    • Ugh, I have so many problems with that book. Full disclosure: I could never get through it. I’ve read full summaries and lots of analyses, but have only made it through a few chapters myself. But the difference with that one is that Humbert Humbert is the protagonist. Not in the way most of us here write them in that the protag is ‘our girl’ or ‘our guy’, but in that ‘too fascinating to look away’ way. Except that I was too disgusted and had to look away. It’s interesting that Nabakov’s became a classic (I think it’s considered a classic??) with that guy as the protagonist, while Kay’s book got slammed by readers for being too empathetic to an evil character who is the antagonist. Different times? Different genre/reader expectations?

      Anyway, all of this has given me a lot to consider. I don’t think walking away from the story is what I want to do, and I can’t pull out this piece of it – it’s too integral to the characters, their arc, and one of the important sub-themes of the book. I have some thoughts about a path forward. I might write about them in next week’s post. Or, you know, have you wait and see until the book is done :-).

  4. Pingback: Nancy: Today’s Word is Theme – Eight Ladies Writing

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