Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Empathy

I watched my son get his nose cauterized this morning. He did great. Barely winced. I managed to stay in my chair and not pass out, but just barely. Watching someone you care about feel pain is excruciating. 

I was thinking about this in terms of writing (of course, because I think about everything  in terms of writing). I'm reading a book right now where the author is doing a great job of throwing her characters in the Dumpster. There's one main character and three secondary ones and every one of them is being forced to face her own personal nightmare. 

Unfortunately, I don't care. I should care. They're women about my age with problems I might have or that my friends or sisters might have. They're trying to balance love and family and work. I still don't care. Somehow, they're not likable. There are no "Save the Cat" moments. They're unrelentingly selfish and mean. I don't like them. 

It's not enough to torture characters. You have to make me care about the characters you're torturing. Otherwise, I have no empathy for them and you can stick hot pokers up their nose and I won't even flinch. 

What's your take? Can you still enjoy a book when you don't like the characters? Or do you have to like them to have empathy for them and to care what happens to them? 

13 comments:

Ken Woychesko, Esq. said...

Excellent post! I'm torn here. Example: Steven Erikson's "Garden of the Moon", through which I managed to struggle. The struggle was partly b/c I'm not a huge fan of fantasy, but more importantly b/c I got 500 pages in and realized that I *still* didn't care what happened to these people.

So what kept me going: the beautiful way the lame-ass story was told. There's images I can still remember vividly, and he does have a great imagination.

But I won't read any more of his books. Pretty pictures alone just doesn't cut it.

Also torn b/c I keep watching True Blood (up to Season 3 now) and the only one I really feel for is the ex-soldier with PTSD who cooks at the bar. Everyone else is just making trouble for themselves.

P.S. Today's "Word Verification" for posting is "chumit", from Devo's lesser-known album "Cousteau". "When a shark won't come along, you must chumit. Before the film crew goes home, you must chumit."

Eileen said...

Good point. I made it about halfway into The Other Boleyn Girl before I realized I was kind of okay with all of them being beheaded and I was only reading it because of the incredibly gorgeous writing. It wasn't enough to get me the rest of the way through the book, though, and I won't pick up another one of her books.

Thank you ever so much for the word verification (can you hear the sarcasm dripping from my words?). I'll be walking around humming Whip It for the rest of the day.

Maureen McGowan said...

Interesting question, Eileen... I think I can have empathy without liking the character. I think the key for me, for books like you're talking about, is often voice.
In "real life" kind of stories where the characters are facing problems just somewhat more dramatic than mine or my friends, I need the author to make me laugh or sigh or cry with the way she uses words, or the quips the characters make.

In more plot driven, fast paced books, I can be empathetic simply because of the situation and what the characters are experiencing.

LOL about Chumit, Ken. My word verification is stron, but I don't have the extra brain cells this am to make a joke. Go at it. ;)

Maureen McGowan said...

Oh, and it's not even am anymore. Dang. That's embarrassing.

Eileen said...

I'm still chewing on this one, trying to figure it out. I just finished the second book in George R. R. Martin's Fire and Ice series. There were some characters that I definitely didn't like, but still felt for. There was one, in particular, that I didn't want to succeed in his plans although I wanted him to be okay. I don't have a lot of in common with this character. He's the prince and he lives in a world with swords and horses and battle ships and palace intrigue.

In the book I just finished reading (and no, I'm not naming names because I just can't bring myself to do it), I really just didn't care whether they succeeded or not. I have tons in common with these characters. I should have related to them and I didn't.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Wait a second - nose cauterized? That sounds terrible!!!

In some stories I need empathy - I don't know what book you're talking about, but if it's a book that in someway seems like my life - I better like them or at the least feel very bad for them. the worst is being bored by them.

But I'll go pretty far in a book if I'm fascinated. so you can give me a character behaving badly but if you have me asking why? Well, that's good for some chapters...

Molly O'Keefe said...

Ken? Is that esquire new? I like it.

Eileen said...

Hmm. I know exactly what they're doing and why. I understand them completely. I just think they're mean and self-centered.

The nose cautery wasn't as bad as any of us expected. Still not fun, but we're hoping he stops having 2 or three nosebleeds a day.

Ken Woychesko, Cracked said...

Re: Esq.: It was just the magazine I happened to be reading at the time. :-)

Maureen McGowan said...

Ken, does that mean you're now reading Cracked?

Sinead M said...

I can enjoy a book, as long as there is a mystery that I don't have the answer to.
Cracked sounds more interesting than Esq... do we get a vote?

Stephanie Doyle said...

I certainly know I can read a book where the writing isn't great but the character holds my attention. (Well - there are my books where that is the case).

But can good writing alone hold my attention... I can't think of an example.

sdanic said...

Confederacy of Dunces. I couldn't wait for the main character to die, and then I thought, there isn't enough time in the world to make me finish this book just to find out if he does die.

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