Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Empathy vs. justice for characters

I just finished reading Donna Tartt's first novel, The Secret History.* I found it almost insanely absorbing. The characters felt realistic and compellingly distinct.

Yet I did not care about them in the same way I care about, say, Ivan Karamazov or Oscar Wao. Yes, I cared what happened to them, but what I wanted to happen was comeuppance. While feeling some sympathy for their plight--which was entirely of their own making--I also wanted them to be caught or at least punished somehow. This seems rather different from the awkward situation of rooting for an anti-hero to get away with a crime, which can also be an interesting reading experience.

I'm not exactly sure how Tartt creates this sort of double-consciousness in the reader. I suspect it has to do with her precise attention to detail in every aspect of the story. We know quite clearly what the characters look like, which is often not the case in literary fiction. We understand the social milieu, its arcane hierarchies, its dangerous gray areas. We see, feel, and breathe the Vermont setting, the crushing winter and the hopeful--and then also, suddenly, crushing--advent of spring. These elements, rather than any aspect of the characters' (including the narrators') almost entirely self-serving behavior, draw us into the story. I really did feel, at every single moment, like I was there.

At the same time, I, at least, take some satisfaction in knowing--knowing--I would not fall into the particular trap the characters find themselves in. Often, fiction makes me wonder what I would do when faced with some extreme moral dilemma. Not in this case. These people are vivid and palpable, but they're really and truly not like me. Maybe it's just good old class resentment at work. I can't deny there's a certain pleasure in seeing fictional rich preppies and wannabes doing stupid, violent things to each other.

Several years ago I wrote a post about "altruistic punishment," which is the scholar William Flesch's term for a particularly satisfying plot formula. Readers, according to this theory, love seeing wrongdoers discover the error of their ways. They much prefer this outcome to virtue rewarded (sorry, Pamela). However, they also want justice meted out, well, judiciously. The punishment can't be too severe, or readers begin to feel sorry for the punishee. In fictional practice, this means "just" endings have to somehow feel a little ambiguous; a simple eye-for-an-eye won't do. I won't give away how, but Tartt mainly succeeds in striking this balance.

What's my point here? I suppose that we don't always have to empathize with characters in order to engage with them. We can stand very near them without actually stepping into their shoes. And we can care what happens to them by rooting against them rather than for them.

So this is just another permission slip to create unlikable characters. You have other, powerful mechanisms for engaging your reader.

*No, I haven't read The Goldfinch yet. I attribute this to two factors: 1) The Secret History, not The Goldfinch, was under the T's at my favorite used bookstore. 2) Frankly the plot of TSH appealed to me more than that of TG; at the time of purchase, I strongly wanted to read a story about preppie killers at a second-tier liberal arts college. In fact, I only wanted to read stories about preppie killers at second-tier liberal arts colleges. That desire more or less continues today. Any suggestions?

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