Friday, May 22, 2015

Empathy

It is a truth universally acknowledged among avid readers that they are more likely to remember characters than the circumstances, or plots, in which the characters find themselves caught. 

This truth applies even to characters in novels the reader has been loathe to finish, which moves us toward the notion of the character's goals and foibles are of more value to the reader and the writer than the concatenation of events we've come to think of as plot.

To be sure, we remember some aspects of plot line, but most of these don't remain in memory as long as the character's goals and possible defects or fears.  Only after considering a tense situation in which the character seems to break or behave in an unexpected way do we remember a bit more of the precipitating plot events.  

We remember Henry, often referred to as The Youth in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of  Courage, fearful that he will turn coward and run in battle.  We remember Scarlet O'Hara's famed closing line from Gone with the Wind, but we may not recall all the details of how she got to that place of optimism or if, indeed, it truly is optimism.  We remember her disastrous encounters with Ashley and Rhett, but unless we've been drawn back to the narrative several times, we are stronger on her presence as a character.

Two robins scarcely make a Spring, but these two characters, both from the same historical era, serve to exemplify the point and at the same time serve to remind us of the reason why characters become memorable in the first place and what the mechanism is to make readers care what happens to them and to enjoy the speculation of what they will or will not do next.

The quality we're looking at here is empathy, which must begin with the writer taking the necessary steps to be able to think the way the character thinks, feel what the character feels, speak the way the character speaks, and this last bit of subtlety, be able to adopt the character's mechanism for subtext.  The character may say one thing but in the regard of that spoken tag, do something altogether different.  The reader needs to know if the character is lying, to whom, and why.

For Empathy to apply and have results, the writer must put him or herself aside.  To give an exaggerated example, the writer must be able to identify with the character to the extent of "being" a person with the height of five feet, six inches, in a room filled with professional basketball players.

The writer must give the reader enough of a sense of the character to cause the reader to feel concern for the outcome of that character's fate.  At least one thing about that character must register with the reader to the extent that the reader begins to experience a sense of unease and concern for what the reader believes the character is about to do next.

One of the most sustained and compelling examples of empathy you've come across in recent years appears with exquisite regularity in a recent collection of short stories, Redeployment, a debut collection from Phil Klay.  Given Stephen Crane's amazing ability to write a convincing narrative about a war that took place before he was born, you could suspect Klay of having come by his information about various levels of service in Iraq from second- and third-hand sources.  But the work brims so full of authenticity, you have to conclude Klay was there, not only from his sensual evocation of Iraq but as well from his portrayal of men and women at many levels of combat and non-combat participation.

The stories are seen through officers, non-coms, and enlisted personnel, including a chaplain.  Ages of characters range from eighteen or nineteen into the forties.  Nearly every individual who appears is now or was in the recent past military, with reference to service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

You had and continue to experience severe opposition to both ventures.  A good deal of residual distaste for the military seeps into your reading of these stories, but this residue is in every case overcome by the author's ability to make his characters available in all their youth, romanticism, and combat readiness that borders on aberrant behavior seem human, frail, believable, and somehow, even while they are presented in their eagerness to rack up battle kills, as commendable individuals.

To cite the last story in the collection, its narrator, a lance corporal in an artillery unit, part of a team that can send shells five and six miles away to work their incredible damage, is seeking proof of his units first kills.  He is at once one of the things you hate most about war and in his vulnerability one of the reasons you care for such an individual and the nightmare aspects of the rest of his life.

Empathy.

A story works best when its protagonists and antagonists change places during the arc of the narrative, which allows us to see how there are always at least two sides to a conflict, and sometimes so many more that the characters never leave us.

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