I've been meaning for some time to take up this discussion again. How does a writer make her readers feel empathy, or compassion (maybe the same thing, maybe not) for her characters? The question goes hand-in-hand with recent discussions of how/why/whether characters must be "likable." I'm glad that conversation is finally well underway; it feels like I've been grousing about how stupid that terminology is for years. And one thing I never really grasped till recently was how gendered the "likable" requirement is. Women characters, it seems, must be "good," while men are only required to be interesting. Let's make "interesting" our universal standard from now on, shall we?*
On Glimmer Train's website, Geoff Wyss writes: "[M]y favorite characters in literature are those mysteriously human enough to startle me into empathy. It's that word mystery
that seems to be the point: The characters that most powerfully evoke
my compassion are the ones who, paradoxically, most resist being known." This resistance to being known is precisely what makes the characters appear realistic, because, Wyss points out, "we
don't understand people in real life, not in the sense of comprehending
them and holding their keys, not even our friends, not even our
husbands and wives, not even close."
I agree. Compassion and empathy arise, first and foremost, out of curiosity. You may never "like" a character or a person, much less understand them, but you can find him--or let's say, for the sake of advancing our feminist agenda, her--interesting. And, at least for fiction, that's enough. Better than enough--necessary.
Wyss further addresses another little peeve of mine, that old saw that "story begins with character" (perhaps a mistranslation of the maxim "character is plot," which Wyss restates here). What that *cannot* mean is first constructing a character outside of any context, or, in Wyss's words, "monstering
characters together from a charnel pile of traits—'Let's make him
bigoted but sentimental, obsessed with film noir, and
hypochondriacal'—and sending them into my stories with their
stitch-lines showing." I swear, in writing workshops, I've been told to do exactly this, and it does not work. For me, character and context evolve together in a close, unending dialetic. Personally I like to start with the situation and see who shows up there; then I turn the character back to face the situation and see what she does to it, what it does to her in turn, and on and on.
But I have still created monsters from time to time. In fact, early in writing my first novel, I was hell-bent on creating a female villain, who is now the story's hero. I found I'd assembled Jackie from an inorganic collection of "traits" to serve my predetermined theme, and she turned out both unbelievable and boring. So I gave her some of my own physical characteristics. And all of a sudden, I was much more concerned with how someone might come to think in these ways I totally disagreed with. I didn't like being a straw woman very much at all, and as a result, that character started insisting on her own mystery and autonomy.
*I'm talking about fiction here. All real people have to be good, according to my definition.