In our newest novel—just finished the 7th draft—a person observes that it’s hard to have empathy with someone who stinks. This thought haunts me, perhaps in part because lots of characters in my plays & novels tend to stink.
Of course we love the lovable villain, and we sympathize with folks whom the writer signals we’re supposed to like. Some of it’s the hair-do. It wants to look neat and appealing, not an expensive helmet, but definitely showing some expertise. And in fiction, movies, plays, we like the people who make us feel generous to like them.
Nothing wrong with that. We want to feel good about ourselves. If we’re white and middle-class, we don’t want to be as evil as we’re charged with being. We want something to happen, whatever.
The issue arises for me because this novel has been a struggle. Everyone in it stinks in different ways. It probably jerks you around worse than anything we’ve written, except maybe our 1975 play DESSIE, which went on to have hundreds of showings. But there, we learned very fast: follow it with a discussion to let people vent. Here, no possibility.
I always hit a glitch when I hear someone say they love a novel or movie because they can identify with the character. For me as a writer, the imperative is to lead the reader to empathize with those whom he/she don’t identify with. But this isn’t a best-seller formula.
I have no answers. I only pose the question: with whom do you empathize, and why?
Dogs and kids, pretty easy. They’re powerless. The oppressed, however you define them, sure. Someone like you or someone who represents your political stance, no sweat. Beyond that, it’s a crapshoot.
And folks who sound angry, they just need to control themselves.
I’ve sometimes set out on the streets of San Francisco with my pockets full of dollar bills, intending to distribute them to beggars. I’ve found myself unable to reach two bucks into a coffee cup. Why is that? I have my own answers to that question, but are my answers true?
I sit at my computer, asking how. The guy who’ll walk a mile for his neighbor, who’ll fight the forest fire, who’ll stay up all night with his cancerous cat, will he raise a finger for the family down the street, and which finger will he raise? Which will I?
It does begin with empathy—the most problematic of emotions. We ration it out in hummingbird bites. And yet it’s all that will save us.