Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Empathy


Another of the bits of information about writing dramatic narrative you took to heart without sufficient investigation was the injunction “Give the reader someone to root for.”  You interpreted this to mean choosing a character whose goals caused readers to resonate in sympathy.

Thus you set off on a long run of trying to argue with the reader in the sense of contriving characters the reader would on some instinctive basis want to win whatever it was she or he sought, whether it was Dorothy Gale wanting to get back to Kansas or Detective Harry Bosch, fed up with the bureaucracy and old boy networking in the LAPD wanting to bring the murderer down because, well, because that represented poetic justice and because that also dramatized the so-called comedic ending, which has little to do with comedy and heaps to do with the return of the universe to its orderly state before a heinous series of murders were committed.

You have never yet known a young girl who wished to get back to Kansas and as you read subsequent works by Lyman Frank Baum, you grew increasingly pleased to discover that Dorothy wished to return to Oz because, given the choices available to her in Kansas, hanging out in Oz with Ozma, the queen of Oz, was not all that bad a bargain.  You actually knew a cop somewhat like Harry Bosch.  There is even reason to believe the character of Harry Bosch was based on the cop you knew.  Although you got on well enough with the cop, and you actually enjoyed the time spent in his company, and although you wanted him to win out over the kinds of creeps and weird sorts who went around humiliating people, then killing them, you did not see him as a potential long term friend.

Of equal truth, you would not wish as friends any number of men and women whose fictional exploits have led you to important emotional and intellectual rewards, nor is it accurate to say you were rooting for them even in the way you used to root for certain sports teams back in the days when such things mattered to you.  While you were on the one hand able to suspend your skepticism and disbelief relative to whether these characters did or in fact could exist, you were more interested in seeing how they got into the situations they did and to what extent they were able to get out of these situations with minimal damage or punishment being inflicted on them.  You were also playing with the game of guessing the author’s stand on certain social issues because the time came when, after you’d read enough and made the then shocking discovery that some men and women were able to make a living from writing such stories as you admired, you knew this was what you wished to do as well.

A significant reason why you moved away from your intense boyhood interest in sports had to do with your discovery that your sports heroes were pretty much redneck bigots, their humor much of a single, bigoted, sexist type and, with few exceptions, their bigotry was especially high in racial content.  You began accordingly to suspect the politics of any character you came across and thus there you were again, at some odds from potential sources of valuable education.  Root for such individuals?  No, thank you.  Root for Gatsby in his attempt to woo Daisy Buchannan?  Pass once again.

The person of craft may have any number of solid, first-rate friendships within her or his craft, but then again, perhaps not.  Perhaps the process of taking on the apprenticeship makes one leery, suspicious, lonely, feeling out there on the outskirts as opposed to in the thick of the social stew.  There may be any number of writers with whom you can talk shop and process and outright technique.  (How do you get that vibrant interior monologue?  How do you get your characters to stop talking?  How do you arrive at what has become your narrative voice?)

How do you cope with the fallout from having found your narrative voice and as a consequence found the necessary sense of confidence to allow you to write as many as three or four pages of draft without any protracted thought?

An answer, a simple enough answer is:  through empathy.  You neither befriend nor coddle nor dismiss your characters, rather you treat them as they must treat themselves, which is to say they know they are right.  They know they are ahead of you on points, no matter what their age, no matter even if you know you are ahead on points over this particular author.

You do not buy into this system.  Instead you empathize with your characters and the situations they find themselves.  After all is said and done, you put them herein, wanting to see how the might fare in circumstances that at very least cause you extreme discomfort.

 You owe your characters some sense of dignity, even though they are about to do something wrong or have already begun compounding wrong things as a further consequence of something wrong they’d done in the past.

You don’t pile on excuses or questionable backstory; rather you see them as doing what they consider necessary things to facilitate what they consider necessary outcomes.  You certainly don’t patronize the victim or the addict any more than you’d patronize say a single mother, raising one or more children.  You in fact stand a chance to learn something from individuals you might consider unfortunate, that is to say, you could learn something if you do not let your senses of entitlement or superiority or even discomfort take over your behavior.  And you do, don’t you, concoct stories to see how they will pay off so that you are less deer-in-the-headlights and more writer in the midst of getting mud and sweat and even blood on your work clothes.

The message should be clear, but you are the first to recognize it is not always so for you:  If you look for desperate and despicable behavior in characters, you will surely find them, but if you look for dignity first, then examine where there was a parting of the ways, you will find considerably more than desperate and despicable behavior.  You will find humanity, extending a hand to you.


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