Empathy

In my post ‘Emotion’, I have touched already on the importance of a writer of fiction feeling the emotions of his characters.   This is a kind of follow-up on that post.

The other evening at about 6:30, my wife came home from her work.  I was in my office upstairs working away on my latest novel.  She came upstairs and put her head in the door.  “Why are you crying?” she asked.

“Henry’s son was just killed,” I said.  (Henry is the key character in my fifth novel.)

“Oh,” she said, “I thought something was wrong.”

In fact, something was very wrong: William, Henry’s son, for whom he had great admiration and fondness, had been killed.  For me, this felt like a tragedy.  One might ask, ‘Is it really necessary for a novelist to get so emotionally involved with his characters?’  Perhaps it is possible for a writer to maintain a level of detachment, but for me, that wouldn’t work.  One might also ask, ‘You knew that William was going to get killed – in fact, you plotted his killing – how can you be so sad when you kill him?’  First of all, I didn’t kill him.  I wrote about how he was killed fighting Somali pirates.  And secondly, fore knowledge of an event doesn’t necessarily protect us from an emotional response to the event itself.  For example, when you know that your daughter is going to get married, you may also know that you’ll be feeling a little weepy (as I did), but that slight anticipation doesn’t stifle the watery eyes when you start down the aisle.  At least it didn’t stifle the tears for me.

Emotion is one of the features of humanity which makes us so interesting, and separates us pretty definitively from the rest of the animal kingdom.  (As a dog lover, I knows that animals have feelings, but not the grand passions of their human masters.)  Emotion, or the lack of it, can go a long way to define our character and our values.

For me, Van Gogh was an artist who understood the power of emotion, and his canvasses reflect this understanding with their powerful brush strokes, brilliant colours and fluidity.  Just look at ‘Starry Night’:

Starry NightFor me, Van Gogh has captured the wonder we feel looking up at the night sky.  In a similar way, I believe that the novelist must try to capture the feelings of his or her characters.  And what better way to capture them than to feel them yourself.  Emotions are only real if you can feel them; if they are not felt, they are only synthetic.  To feel the emotions of a character, one must know him or her, and to know her, the writer must define her.  Then, one can begin the process of empathising: I am him, in this situation, how do I feel?  Angry?  How angry?  What’s unique about my anger?  If my anger is only a stereotype, it doesn’t define me as a person.  The writer not only has to empathise with his characters, he has to capture the feelings of the character in distinctive language.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s