On our afternoon walk today, I asked Elizabeth a moderately unanswerable question. I’m ready to begin the third draft of our new novel, a very surreal dystopian thing with a cast of dysfunctional characters, and I asked her regarding one character, “What does it need for us to connect with him? To empathize?”
The question has roots in a personal failing: I empathize too readily. Except for a few people over the years who’ve either hurt someone close to me or cost me money, my judgmental self is supplanted by my actor’s instinct to empathize, to see people from inside themselves. Had I the power, I still might give them 20 years in the slammer, but it would be like sentencing myself. I have to admit that would include Shakespeare’s Lear or a murderous cop or our pathetic, hideous President.
Why is this a potential failing? Artistically, because I might be too far separate from my audience. What to me might be a character vital to understand might be to someone else a soul to write off as irredeemably vile. So I might tout myself as more humane, but my story won’t work for them. I can’t ignore that issue: all my attempts in a life of art have been to build empathy.
Sometimes empathy as generosity, empathy as love, but also empathy as knowing your enemy: empathy as forcing ideology to face reality. I’m a highly judgmental creature when I face the mirror, so perhaps I’m wanting to answer that question in relation to myself.
But the more immediate question is, What makes us empathize? And with anyone outside our self-defined tribe? Collectively, we’re not in a very generous mood these days. A character you identify with? A character whom you’d invite to dinner? A character who feels your pain? A character who’s a victim? A character struggling against some inner demon? A character who’s at least trying? A character who screams? A character who entertains?
Elizabeth and I talked a long while. Useful, but the story will decide. Getting home, we packaged up the week’s bagful of cat extrusions to submit to the garbage collectors. It’s harder with publishers.