Odds 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 few 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?