Writing Notes #2: The Limits of Empathy

This is part two of an ongoing series of posts on the craft of writing: thoughts that have occurred to me while watching TV, reading, or just sitting quietly in the hungry hours of the morning, wishing for sleep.

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[Like the last one of these, this post contains spoilers for Invasion (I’m up to episode five now), so reader beware.]

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Back when I was teaching—a few delightful, if stressful years of my life—one of the things my students would bring up over and over (to the dire consternation of my fellow instructors) was whether characters were “relatable” or not.

Now, setting aside the fact that grammatically it should be “relatable to” (you relate to the characters, they do not relate to you), I always found it curious that my fellow teachers were very hard on students for caring about this. They would say that relating to the characters, that is, sympathizing or empathizing with them, “wasn’t the point.”

Honestly, I worry about teachers who don’t understand the importance of empathy to art.

The most powerful thing a piece of art can do is to draw the reader in, make them a part of the narrative themselves, and that happens first and foremost through empathy. I won’t say that there’s no point in art that doesn’t foster empathy, but to discount it entirely is, to me, truly bizarre. Anyway.

Enter the insufferable characters.

I am, by virtue of my neurotype, among other things, upsettingly empathetic. Upsettingly as in, watching or reading many narratives upsets me, because I get too close to the characters. So-called “cringe” comedy—like The Office, say—is so viscerally unpleasant as to be utterly unwatchable. It’s just hours upon hours of people who are unable to see how embarrassing their own actions are, who are then put on display so that outside viewers can laugh at them. Honestly, the moment you empathize with anyone in that hot mess, you’re left feeling either like (a) a bully or (b) a bystander without the moral fortitude to step in and do something. It makes a broad swathe of modern comedy a challenge for me.

But on the flip side, this level of automatic, unmediated empathy should make it possible to do what so much art tries to get you to do: empathize with broken characters, relate to even “unrelatable” people. And I am telling you there are limits. There are characters that, once you start trying to empathize with them, you realize they’re either just terrible people unworthy of empathy or else so internally inconsistent that they make no sense.

These are the insufferable characters.

This is where I come back to Invasion, which—against all good sense—I am still watching, five episodes in. Why? Because I want to know what happens next. But my patience has limits, and we are rapidly approaching them. The problem is that the characters are rapidly approaching universal insufferability.

We’ve got the doctor who’s being cheated on by her crappy husband—who’s now so wrapped up in that betrayal that she’s been arguing with her husband in front of their young children despite their obvious traumatization, stolen another family’s car during an evacuation, and in general just put herself and her hurt feelings ahead of everyone, including her own children, during a catastrophic global crisis. I’m just going to say right now that I’m glad she stopped being a doctor, because if this is how she acts in a crisis she’d have a body count. This is not how a doctor should act.

We’ve got the soldier whose men are all missing or dead—who’s been screaming at a man who cannot possibly understand him because he doesn’t speak English for several days of in-narrative time, who keeps pointing his big stupid gun at the doctor who very clearly tried to save his friend’s life. This is not how a soldier should act.

We’ve got the bullied kid and all his classmates who somehow seem to take days to realize that the class bully is shit, and who—for reasons the narrative never explains—don’t just tell the bully to fuck off into the sun. This is now how children would act.

And we’ve got the Japanese ground-control tech who goes to her dead astronaut lover’s father’s house, lies her way into said house, and lies down on her girlfriend’s childhood bed with apparently no worry that it’s a massively weird and inappropriate thing to do. Like she doesn’t even close the door?? This is not how anyone would act. She’s not even embarrassed when she’s discovered. It’s deeply weird.

Any one of these characters could be explained away as flawed. “You just have to try harder to understand that people are flawed,” say so many writers. But when every single character in a narrative discards the things that your readers should by all rights expect of them—that a doctor would think of others, especially children, first; that a soldier would remain calm under pressure; that kids would work together to stand up to a douchecanoe; that people don’t just lie down on other people’s beds because that’s totally weird and strange—when all the characters act in ways that defy empathy, you reach the precipice of what I call the Empathy Deficit Problem.

If every character in your narrative is so irrational and/or acts against their own interests with such reckless abandon that they become frustratingly hard to empathize with—that is, if they’re universally “unrelatable”—then you are going to lose your audience. They are not going to care what happens to your characters. And if they don’t care what happens to the characters, they aren’t going to keep engaging: they’ll stop reading, they’ll stop watching, they’ll quit on you.

I mean honestly, at this point I’m rooting for the aliens here.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t challenge your audience, shouldn’t try to get them to empathize with flawed characters. But I very much am saying that there are limits to your audience’s empathy, and that you really need to think about that when you’re writing.

Which is to say that you, as a writer, need to empathize with your audience. On top of asking “is this something my (flawed) character would reasonably do?” you need to also ask “is this something my audience will put up with?”

Because if not a single one of your characters is worth cheering for, if nobody in your audience cares whether they live or die or get eaten by the giant alien starfish or whatever, then your ability to tell the story is going to be seriously curtailed.

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