It can be argued that empathy — the act of identifying with
another, of imaginatively attempting to enter another consciousness
— is at the heart of fiction’s power. Writers need
empathy to create a depth and complication of character. When
we read fiction, we are empathetically engaged as we imagine ourselves
into the lives and predicaments of others. At the same time, we
are also invited as readers of fiction to enter the foreign, possibly
estranging consciousness of an author, which, you could argue,
is also an act of empathy.
I’d like to begin by thinking about
character, the creation of character: how for you as writers empathy
does (or perhaps does not) enter into the process of creating
characters in a work of fiction. Barbara, in your most recent
one of your protagonists is Ron, a man whose fixation on a young
girl named Rachel leads him to kidnap and imprison her. You’ve
also narrated a novel from the point of view of a series of elephants.
Peter, the protagonist of your novel The
Law of Dreams, Fergus O’Brien, a 19th-century Irish
famine victim, comes to us across the estranging distance of the
past. Lisa, in your novel Alligator,
you enter a range of different consciousnesses (using both first-
and third-person POV), including that of a sociopathic Russian
sailor plotting to burn down a woman’s house in St. John’s.
Sheila, your novel Ticknor
was inspired by a 19th-century biography yet creates an anxious
consciousness for your own Ticknor that feels like a hybrid of
past and present.
So, to you all, a general question, but
feel free to answer in the specific: how do you go about entering
the otherness that is character? Do your characters begin as strangers?
How much are you consciously mining yourself and how much are
you consciously trying to create characters radically not like
yourself? Is this possible?
SHEILA: I think it is
so easy, in the world, to mis-imagine other peoples' motives because
you are so personally involved, and it's easy to be sensitive
and feel fucked-up. Like, it's day three — clearly they
haven't emailed me back because they can intuit what an awful
person I am. Or perhaps you are of a different cast of mind: they
haven't emailed me back because they're a thoughtless asshole.
Really, the truth lies somewhere between their being a thoughtless
asshole and your being an awful person. This is the space where
many of the novelists I enjoy work: what is the nature of our
misunderstanding of ourselves and our misunderstanding of other
people? What can we say for sure about humans? What is the truth?
Empathy, it seems to me, is another word
for love. Perhaps you can't understand something unless you love
it. And that is why it's necessary for the novelist to have empathy
— love — for what they create. But love is complex,
too. The people I love the most in the world are also the people
I have the most disgust and hatred for. Carl Wilson and I were
talking once, in the midst of our marriage, and he defined love
as "every feeling at once." So you might have a limited
range of feelings for someone you like, but if you love someone,
you have, for them, every feeling that it's possible for one person
to have about another.
I'm not sure whether I had every feeling
it's possible to have about another human for the character of
Ticknor, but I suspect I had, in writing the book, every feeling
it's possible for a human to have towards something they created.
So I guess that's love, and I guess that's empathy for the thing
I created — the whole, not Ticknor as a character, but the
whole book. Because for me, I cannot separate Ticknor-the-character
from the book. It's like a photo of a person in a field. The person
and the field are on the same plane. You cannot slide your hand
between the person and the field to separate one from the other.
And they are both made of the same stuff: pixels. The background
and foreground are the same matter. Same with a book: words.
So for me it's a question of the book,
not the character. And of course, the book is a metaphor for your
consciousness — not simply the character; every element
of the book is, and acts together, to symbolise your soul. We
must all have love and empathy for this part of ourselves or else
we'd probably have killed ourselves by now. At least, when you
are feeling like killing yourself, it seems to me that it is your
basic humanity that you have the least empathy for, and the most
disgust for, and feel the greatest alienation from.
Maybe there's something alchemical going
on. Perhaps those novelists who find themselves quite close to
disgust for their deepest humanity write to turn that disgust
into empathy or love. And perhaps certain readers share that need.
We know there is something to love about all humans, but what?
BARBARA: Before starting
a novel I have quite a sparse idea of my main characters. For
instance, with Ron in Helpless, all I knew was that I
wanted a man who worked at a blue-collar job and who, in most
aspects of his life, was normal to the point of anonymity. I didn’t
know anything else about him until I started writing. I didn’t
know he’d be fat until I’d typed the word. Ron’s
girlfriend, Nancy, was even more vaguely realized at the outset.
I feel as if I’m only one sentence ahead of myself when
it comes not only to creating character but also to figuring out
I consciously mine very little of myself
or my experiences. Once I’ve put a book out there, I can
rely on somebody to direct me to the many autobiographical aspects,
but while I’m writing, I don’t see them, obvious as
they may be. I can see now that the three sisters in Falling
Angels bear a resemblance to my sisters and me, and yet
at the time I invented them I thought they sprang out of nowhere.
The characters in my short-story collection, We
So Seldom Look on Love, and my novel The
White Bone remain entirely “other.” This
is because their consciousnesses are so entirely alien to my own.
I mean I’m no more a necrophile or a transsexual than I
am an elephant. Also, quite apart from what I needed a certain
character to do, the not-normal circumstances of his or her physical
self seemed to dictate most of the action and thought. Over and
over again in the writing of those two books, I found myself wondering,
How would I behave if…if I were that big, if my sense of
smell was my predominant sense, if I accidentally decapitated
my baby, and so on. It was fun, it was like a
I find it interesting how so many people
want to believe that fiction is autobiographically driven. One
of the first questions I’m asked by readers and interviewers
is how much of me is contained in this or that character. There’s
a story in We So Seldom Look on Love about a female exhibitionist,
and after the book was published a rumor came back to me that
someone in the apartment building across from mine had seen me
cavorting naked in front of my living-room window. If I may formally
set the record straight — I never cavort and I’m rarely
LISA: Virginia Woolf has
said: “Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged;
life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding
us from the beginning to the end.”
How to create empathy for a character?
That is certainly what I want when I write, and what I want when
I read. Here are the characters with staying power that instantly
leap to mind: Anna Karenina, Jay Gatsby, Hans Schnier in Henrich
Boll’s The Clown, Madame Olenska in Edith Wharton’s
The Age of Innocence, Duddy Kravitz, Richard Ford’s
Frank Bascomb, Humbert Humbert, Hans Castorp, Suttree,
Olanna in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Half of A Yellow
Sun, Mrs. Ramsay, Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway
— and they come to me in a sort of emotional shorthand.
I see Heinrich Boll’s clown in face
paint on a dark stage, in a spotlight, performing with an oversized
ring of keys. The keys are made of ice and they are melting in
his hand as he tries to open an invisible door. This is an image
of such torpid impotence and grim humour, that I knew, as soon
as I read it more than twenty years ago, I would never forget
it. Mrs. Ramsey, during the evening meal in To The Lighthouse,
silently commanding Lily Briscoe to rescue a socially maladjusted
young man. Lily Briscoe moving the salt shaker. Frank Bascomb’s
son getting hit in the face by a baseball, down for the count
— these brief gestures, these tiny moments, are as real
to me as any brief moment in my own life: watching my son swim
under the waterfall in Northern Bay, watching him emerge with
his hair glossy and plastered down, his eyelashes spiky, his gaping,
open-mouthed ecstasy, or: the thick chain that chokes my neighbor’s
Rottweiller, slithering crazily through the dirt, the slathering
150-pound beast yanked by the neck, mid-air, and slammed back
into the ground a yard from my feet.
These moments are the gig-lamps Virginia Woolf mentions and though
they can dredge up the character from memory, whole and complete,
they are not the full story. Nor would a series of such images
or moments inspire empathy. Character is more than a lifetime
of actions and repercussions and the hopping dance that stamps
out those grass fires.
Character is desire. All those memorable
characters want something. And whatever it is they want, a dinner
party to go smoothly, a wife who has run off, a piece of land,
to escape civil war, or death, to be desired themselves, a bowl
of rabbit stew — whatever they want, they want it badly.
No matter how big or small, they want it with all their might.
And that desire is luminous and has made them alive and indelible.
It doesn’t matter if we like them or not; or whether they
are worthy of what they want. What matters is if we are caught
up in the sweeping spotlight of that desire. We need to know if
the desire will be consummated, or thwarted, and we will turn
the page and remember them. Suddenly, in the midst of writing
this, I have become aware that I might sound like I think I know
what I’m talking about. I’ll be honest: I do not know
what I am talking about.
I think character is extremely mysterious, and the difference
between wooden puppets and blushing, trembling flesh might be
a hair’s breadth or the Grand Canyon. It is alchemy, it
is playing God, it’s magic, ungovernable, cantankerous,
and fragile, a hard thing to pull off, impossible etc. I believe
it has something to do with letting the reader create as much
of the character as possible. I see Jay Gatsby standing apart
from the party looking over the ocean, his hands in the pockets
of a white linen suit. I don’t know for sure if Fitzgerald
wrote a white linen suit with pockets. I could comb the pages
and try to find one, but one exists for me whether he wrote it
or not. This makes Gatsby a living being, he is capable of changing
his clothes outside of the book. Is that craving to know —
will this character get what he wants — a form of empathy?
I think it might be.
PETER: Cutting to the
specific, I allowed myself to imagine I was writing a family history
that no one else had bothered to remember, and then I could imagine
my character in the 1840s as my great-great-grandfather, and this
seemed to help me to slide into him. Empathy? Yeah. I felt I WAS
him for a good long while; anyway, I was walking through the world
somewhere behind his eyes. I felt a fundamental need since he
was operating in a lost time faraway in another mental world than
ours — to ground myself as deeply as I could in his world.
His way of seeing grew out of my research into the tactile physical
political psychological dimensions of his 1840s world.
Empathy. For some reason I had the tune of his voice early, in
my ear, and it stayed with me throughout periods when I lost every
other aspect of the story. Empathy? I finally recognized that
I needed to create a technique for myself to bring the reader
close to this weird unhappy boy. Because the book just wasn’t
delivering on that basic writer-to-reader promise which is to
create the conditions for the possibility of empathy. Empathy
— the choice is finally the reader’s, of course, to
empathize or not and most books I read don't, and I put them down.
My mc's was the only POV throughout the book — except a
brief prologue — so the reader was seeing everything from
inside or behind his eyes but he wasn't there, couldn’t
be seen, he was just beyond the spectrum. So I started trying
to deliver what I thought of as his brain talk, just the music
of thoughts in his head — maybe an attempt to capture a
stream-of-consciousness, a hopeless endeavour I've always been
CATHERINE: I love Sheila’s
idea of love incorporating all other emotions, and that is an
aspect of its complexity, the idea of complexity being so important
to the creation of character, and consciousness, in fiction, character
being inseparable from the book. I’m also compelled by the
idea that the ultimate sympathy/empathy (?) is for one’s
own self, for the consciousness that’s doing the creating,
and that some alchemy may occur, that writing may become a way
to turn self-disgust, etc., into something approaching love. One
of the things that interests me about Ticknor is that
we become aware of the presence of an author/narrator seeping
into the character of Ticknor, that this sense of consciousness
is twinned, or blurred.
While, Barbara, your process speaks to
a desire, it seems, for the self to disappear into others. You’re
attempting in the creation of fiction to go as far from your self
as you can — the conscious work of writing is to think at
every instant through that other, through the demands of that
other, whose being is generated word by word. Given this sentence-by-sentence
approach, I have to ask, Did you have no idea when you began Helpless
that Ron would become the kidnapper of a young girl? And when
did you discover this?
Lisa, you speak to the importance of desire
in character as being an aspect of empathy: the flame that draws
in the reader, our need to feel both the pressure of that desire,
and its consequences…and yet to have some space left around
character for the reader to participate in the act of creation.
And Peter, too, speaks to the importance of the reader making
the connection. Alchemy again.
In all cases, it seems clear that liking
your characters is largely irrelevant.
Here’s a revised definition of empathy
in fiction that I’d like to try on for size. Finding ways
to illuminate the other, the strange, the unknown, the undescribed,
and make it understandable or give expression to it or animate
it so that we inhabit the strangeness and live through its desires,
its particular and complex truths — as communicated through
particular arrangements of words.
Sometimes I think where I’m prepared to go, and how far
I feel I can go into a character’s consciousness, is also
shaped by point-of-view choices. There are some characters I can
imagine inhabiting in a first-person POV, some only in third,
some whom I can only attempt to imagine through the eyes of a
narrating character — I wouldn’t know how to get closer
than that. I wouldn’t say I always arrive at these choices
consciously, but see them in retrospect. There are characters
I’m desperate to have on the page (an astronaut mother,
an Iranian passport forger, a man who founds a children’s
circus and may or may not be a molester of children), and I can
feel (and want to communicate) the force of their desire, but
I don’t know how to get inside them: I can only observe
them through the consciousness of my narrator. Are there characters
that you don’t feel prepared to enter, or particular depths
of consciousness where you feel you can’t, or won’t
go — where the potential for any empathetic crossing-over
simply stops, whether because the other feels too strange, or
too evil, or too unknowable?
And, to turn the question around a little,
are there particular circumstances in which you’ve encountered
a reader’s resistance — where readers can’t
or won’t make the empathetic leap?
BARBARA: To respond to
Catherine’s last question first, I’ll say there are.
Plenty of reviewers of Helpless took issue with me for
not making Ron a complete monster. They wanted somebody they could
hate unreservedly, and so they resented me for (as they saw it)
trying to make them like the guy. Other readers (mostly women)
expressed gratitude that I painted him in shades of gray. Well,
I had no interest in creating a monster. Monsters are uninteresting
in that they lack a moral dilemma, they can’t be sideswiped
by compassion or guilt. For instance, Patrick whatever-his-name-was
from American Psycho. I couldn’t finish that book
because Patrick wasn’t human, he was a piece of human-shaped
shit, a robot. For me, as both a writer and reader, it’s
necessary maybe not to like the main character but to believe
that he or she can be redeemed, whether or not that turns out
to be the case. And yes, Catherine, I knew Ron would kidnap Rachel
(so my previous answer wasn’t entirely truthful) but I wasn’t
sure how he’d handle her once he got her in his basement.
I like Lisa’s line that character
is desire. I think it’s true of people both inside and out
of fiction. By the way, Lisa, I’m worried about your neighbour’s
Rottweiller. Do they walk the poor thing? If we’re going
to talk about empathy here, imagine being a huge, wild-hearted
creature, whose day is spent trying to break free of the chain
around your neck.
I also like Sheila’s “the book
is a metaphor for your consciousness.” No doubt. Everything
in our books is born of our minds, so there’s no escaping
the fact that our characters are ourselves... ourselves as we
imagine we’d be were we someone else.
A thought: Most writers, when asked why
they write, say something along the lines of (to quote Aldous
Huxley... naturally I looked this up), “One has the urge,
first of all, to order the facts one observes and to give meaning
to life.” Katherine Anne Porter (I got this from the same
source) said, “That’s what the artist is for... to
give his or her view of life.” Would you all agree? I do.
Underneath every one of my books is a desire to give meaning to
life as I see it and what’s more to sell this meaning to
my readers. You can’t be heavy-handed about this, obviously,
but your biggest weapon (maybe that’s too strong a word?)
is your characters. The more credible they are, the more their
stories sound not like fabricated situations but like testimonials.
Who can argue with such experience, such voices? That’s
how I feel when I read Alice Munro, especially her earlier books.
Her dialogue is so authentic-sounding I’ll never be entirely
convinced she wasn’t transcribing real life. This realness
is at the heart of empathy, it seems to me. Something I believe
is that all human ills arise out of a failure of empathy, and
all failures of empathy arise out of failures of the imagination.
Another thought: Many fine and even great
books contain scarcely any empathy at all. I’m thinking
of Blood Meridian, for instance, where McCarthy just
moves his un-enterable characters through the magnificent nightmare
of his very-distant omniscient narrator. Also a writer like David
Gilmour. Gilmour never gets into the head of any character outside
the main one, who always happens to be a guy very much like David
Gilmour. Gilmour’s a kind of pornographer of himself in
his writing, and yet the result is intelligent and compelling,
though hardly an exercise in empathy.
LISA: Barbara, I loved
what you said about the creation of character, and that you don't
know very much when you start. That you don't know a character
is fat until you type the word. I realized, reading that description,
that that's the way it works for me too. Recently I've been writing
a character who was in the Rotterdam zoo when the gorilla escaped
last month. His physical body keeps slipping on me, one minute
he's tanned and fit, running marathons, sometimes he's a pale
smoker with white hairless legs veined like marble, always he
has a Tilley hat. His age is slipping too. Even the gorilla is
fading in and out. But what is important to me is his desire to
escape an idea of time, what time is and how to get outside of
it. It has to do with aging and procreating or not and death and
the big desire to escape death. It has to do with the fact that
my own hair is getting grey and though I'm only forty-three my
daughter says, You know, you aren't finishing your sentences anymore
when you speak. This may be because I'm losing my mind, or it
may be because I'm slipping deeper and deeper into the novel I'm
trying to write. I have called this character Harry, but I want
to change that because of Harry Potter. I can't seem to change
his name, nothing else works. Recently I was in the airport and
a friend of mine, a boyfriend from when I was 16, sat down beside
me. I looked up and there he was, I hadn't seen him in three years
or so. He's a scientist. How's the novel going, he said. He immediately
started helping me with the timeline. He knew I was the kind of
person who would have trouble with that. So if he was born in
1960, my friend said, and his daughter is now fifteen and he got
a girl pregnant when he was, etc., etc. Having those dates (it
took about fifteen minutes) was a huge relief. But it was also
like hammering poor Harry into place. No more slippage on the
timeline front. I could still have white legs, or tanned muscular
ones, I could still have the Tilley Hat, but certain other things
Sheila, I love your metaphor of the photograph and the pixels
and the book and the character. Because characters are voice and
the cadence of the speech, and the punctuation and language. Catherine,
your questions are keeping me buzzing, they're great and they're
swimming around in me.
PETER: First, re: character
and invention & apropos of Lisa’s and Barbara’s
comments: l understand what you said about not knowing the character
is fat until it comes off the keys. And often writing is tripping
over the edge of what I know and falling down, or over, into what
I don't. In a micro way that's how it works — in a scene
I usually don’t know how it will go till it spills out.
But in a macro way, when I think of the whole pull of a book,
there is one big fat thing — either a character or a scene
that seems central, the thing I want to see closely and understand,
that is the motive power. I think of it as the magnet somewhere
in the book, and I'm always trying to get to that place, trying
to keep my sense of direction clear.
Re: Catherine's question # 2. Yeah. When my mc in Law of Dreams
was recruited to work as a young male prostitute I made myself
write scenes where he went to work doing tricks with clients but
I just kept feeling kind of false and stilted writing them in
a way I usually don't feel writing about heterosex. And my trusted
reader agreed. They felt bogus. Sex is sex but the act of being
a prostitute and a male prostitute was too intimate and powerful
an experience maybe for my powers of imagination and empathy —
so what I recognized was that my character shared my own feelings,
which weren't homophobic or I don't think even priggish —
all his best friends were prostitutes & he recognizes that
they are doing what they need to do to survive & he knows
that being any ordinary laborer isn't all that different (he's
hiring out his body after all) but regarding doing tricks, he
just can't go there. He realizes he cannot and will not be vulnerable
in that way. He thinks his sense of self will dissolve. Maybe
it was a case of the limits of my imagination shaping his character.
I actually think his refusal was organic to his character, not
just my weakness or lack of courage as a writer.
SHEILA: Barbara wrote
that "Monsters are uninteresting in that they lack a moral
dilemma." It's very true. Supermarkets also lack a moral
dilemma, and perhaps are uninteresting on this account. Two years
ago, I tried to write a book in which a supermarket was the main
Perhaps, as Lisa suggests, I didn't know
what the supermarket wanted. It wasn't even a question I asked
myself, since naturally it was a supermarket. In any case, though
I wanted to write about a supermarket, after a few weeks I stopped.
So I think the idea of choice is involved,
but I didn’t look at it like a formal choice — which
characters you do or don't go into. It's not like choosing to
buy this thing over that one, like you make a choice and you're
done with it. It's more a choice like who do you end up fucking
or falling in love with — it comes from you, but you don't
exactly will it.
CATHERINE: Is the idea
of a moral dilemma essential to what we need in order to create
empathy on the page?
This intrigues me. And makes me think of
the idea of a novel as a place where multiple truths, embodied
by characters, rub up against each other and collide. Those truths
may create a dilemma within a character or between characters.
SHEILA: No, I don't think
it necessarily has to be a moral dilemma. In The Metamorphosis,
Gregor wakes up to discover he's a beetle (or whatever your preferred
translation is). That's an existential, not a moral, dilemma.
I'm not even sure a dilemma is necessary.
It can't be codified like this.
Certainly as a writer I have never thought,
'Red bricks, blue curtains... I've got the house... now how am
I going to create empathy?'
PETER: Dilemma, no not
necessarily. No mission statement. Characters do have to want
something that they're not getting, don't have. I'm trying to
remember if empathy would characterize or usefully describe the
nature of my relationship to the character /narrator Nick Jenkins
in Dance to the Music of Time. Or to that other famous
Nick/narrator in Gatsby. No. Maybe. I don't need to feel
empathy as a reader. I'm prepared to be horrified, and intrigued.
But maybe as a writer I do.
BARBARA: I agree that
a big moral or an ethical dilemma isn’t essential to creating
empathy but I think it can be a powerful force when a character
is struggling not to take the most self-serving path. And in all
fiction, isn’t it true that characters constantly wrestle
with small questions of behavior (Should I do the dishes or leave
them for him to do? Should I step on the worm? Should I get pissed
at my kid?) and that their decisions and reflections reveal aspects
of their ethical profile and therefore determine the extent of
Sheila, I doubt many writers ask themselves,
How am I going to create empathy? Surely the process is more unconscious,
mixed up as it is with the creation of believable and compelling
SHEILA: Yes, I agree —
I think no writers do this. At least, I can't imagine it.
LISA: I wanted to respond to that question earlier
about points-of-view that I might feel frightened to try to inhabit.
I think with Alligator I wanted to try every point of
view I could think of. I thought the Russian sociopath would be
the hardest, but in fact, the hardest point of view to write convincingly
was 17-year-old Colleen. I had sort of decided to model that character
on a young version of myself. But she came out nothing like me.
It took me a very long time to make her feel in any way real on
Frank, a 19-year-old boy in my novel, was not consciously modelled
on anyone I knew. I kept wondering — where is this guy coming
from? I don't know anyone like this in real life. But he was the
most real to me. I would actually wake up in the morning frightened
for him and have to remind myself he was only a figment of my
imagination, that he wasn't real, and not in any real danger.
That was one of the most unexpected things, and most pleasurable
things that happened to me in terms of writing a first novel.
I realized, in considering this question, that I am afraid to
write from a character's point-of-view if he or she is from a
country that I've never visited. I admire people who can do this.
But I am afraid to attempt the stream-of-consciousness Peter describes
— the voice that he heard so clearly while writing —
if I do not know the smells and sounds and textures, the sensory
details of that character's world. I have begun to write a character
from North Korea, as a challenge. Perhaps North Korea because
so few people have visited there. It's an imaginative leap for
most readers, perhaps. But I don't think I will be able to get
inside this character's head. I think I will only be able to portray
her from the outside. What other characters think of her, and
how they see her.
Ramona Dearing once wrote a story from the point-of-view of a
In the introduction to Anna Karenina
( I'm not sure which edition) it says that Tolstoy despised Anna,
to begin with, and thought her morally inferior. He wanted to
show her failings as an example. But as he wrote her she became
sympathetic to him. He could not help himself.
Once I wrote a short story with a male protagonist and nobody
believed it was a male protagonist. So I wrote his name in the
very first paragraph and even said something like "he remembered
back when he was a boy" and still nobody believed it was
a male. I asked people to tell me where I went off track, what
sounded female — nobody could locate the problem in a word
or detail or phrase. But it was a problem for everyone who read
Once I wrote a man traveling from Tazmania to Toronto via Singapore
and in the Singapore airport he bought a pair of underwear, not
realizing how long the flight would be, and wanting to change
his underwear in the bathroom during the stopover. Many men explained
to me that this would never happen. No man would ever change his
underwear in the Singapore airport. But they agreed, reluctantly,
he could change his socks, if he were an extremely fussy kind
CATHERINE: I’d like
to return to Barbara’s comment, and question from above:
Katherine Anne Porter said, “That’s
what the artist is for... to give his or her view of life.”
Would you all agree? I do. Underneath every one of my books is
a desire to give meaning to life as I see it and what’s
more to sell this meaning to my readers.
PETER: Well, I remember
when Hugh Hood was introducing his students at Université
de Montréal to James Joyce and they kept asking Hood, "Ah,
but what is his (Joyce's) philosophy?" Which always seemed
to me a kind of strange way to engage with the work.
I don't know about giving meaning to life
but maybe finding it. And not to Life but to experience within
comment makes me think of Zadie Smith’s comments in her
recent article, “Fail Better,” in which she talks
about what she looks for, and aims for, in fiction: a deep revelation
of the self, the particular expression of a human consciousness,
“one person’s truth as far as it can be rendered through
language.” “When I write,” she says, “I
am trying to express my way of being in the world.” To do
this well, she argues, requires the nurturing and development
of the self, a kind of self-education, in the broadest sense.
Does this idea of needing to develop, to educate the self speak
SHEILA: Yes, of course,
but that's part of being human, isn't it? That desire?
That seems to be the directive of most
of the world's religions -- Christianity, Buddhism, Scientology,
whatever. It’s the directive of psychoanalysis, too.
It's not a specifically writerly activity,
the cultivation of the self.
Besides, is one a better writer the more
self-actualized or good of a person they become? I don't see evidence
BARBARA: I've been thinking about Sheila's proposition
that love for someone is having "every feeling that it's
possible for one person to have about another." I wonder
that's true. Towards the children I love I've never felt jealousy
or envy or disgust or lust or animosity or hate or hostility or
distrust. So maybe, Sheila, you were talking about romantic love?
But even there, certain feelings may never come into play. For
instance, I don't believe I ever envied or felt afraid of either
of my husbands. But I think it's probably true that, in romantic
love, the range of feelings is much wider.
When I think of fictional characters I've
felt great empathy for, I think of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and
Anna Karenina, probably because their beauty, which should have
been their best asset at a time when women's assets were so few,
is the very thing that doomed them. There are plenty of other
such tragic heroines, of course (Madame Bovary, Lily Bart, Catherine
Earnshaw, etc.) but these two, Tess and Anna, have stayed with
me, Anna whenever I'm on a platform waiting for a train, and Tess
whenever I take a long walk
(that women trekked miles just to milk a cow).
SHEILA: Last night I was
lying in bed thinking about all this, our conversation, and the
idea of a character started to feel really really strange to me.
And then I turned my attention to people I know, and thought,
What distinguishes one from another? What do I mean — what
am I thinking about — when I think about a friend? Is it
the way they look, or how their body moves, or — as Barbara
says — the questions they wrestle with and the choices they
make as a result?
And then — how crazy it is that we
are able to simulate that motleyness in fiction, to create something
whole, something which resembles a human.
Montaigne has a great essay about the changeability
of people — "On the inconstancy of our actions"
— and its main point is that the only thing that we can
say for sure about people is that each of us is many men. That
if you looked at our lives and all the various ways we've acted
throughout it, no solid picture would emerge.
The first sentence says it all: "Those
who strive to account for a man's deeds are never more bewildered
than when they try to knit them into one whole and to show them
under one light, since they commonly contradict each other in
so odd a fashion that it seems impossible that they should all
come out of the same shop."
So my question to all of you is —
what do you think is the soul of the character? Apart from the
fact that we give our characters names to distinguish them from
one another, what is the soul of a fictional character, if fictional
characters are meant to represent and to varying extents resemble
real people, and yet real people are marked by variation, inconstancy
BARBARA: Go, Montaigne!
Long live ambiguity, a quality we seem to have lost our tolerance
for. The reason creating real-seeming characters is so hard is
probably because they need to be ambiguous and inconsistent. They
need “motleyness.” Exactly.
CATHERINE: What I look
for in character — soul, some essential quality —
is unpredictability within the order of the narrative. I want
to create this as a writer and discover it as a reader of fiction.
I want to feel that the character has a choice to act one way
or another, or feels pulled between possible paths of behaviour.
The pulse, even with the smallest gesture, of the unexpected.
As a writer I write to discover what these choices and courses
of action will be, to inhabit them on the page. I want to feel
the pressure of these possibilities and then the pressure of their
consequences, and convey this to the reader. This is at the heart
of my empathetic connection to character, I think.
The narrator of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger
is often repulsive but lives this unpredictability: he’s
driven, by hunger, by the desire to deceive and the desire to
do good, he refuses to eat in case his brain becomes more feverish,
he lies to an old man sitting on a park bench, he steals, when
he has nothing he gives what he has away. His behaviour isn’t
random; we feel the pressure of his making choices. And he retains
an acute self-awareness even in states of near madness.
On the whole I’d say as a reader
that I respond more to the immersion in the book-as-consciousness
than to individual characters. Like Sheila, I have difficulty
taking the characters out of the book. What I look for is to live
imaginatively with some complexity — morally, emotionally,
esthetically. I’ve been reading the Spanish novelist Javier
Marias (All Souls, and the first two parts of his trilogy,
Your Face Tomorrow): I’m struck by the obsessions
and quality of observations that come to me through the narrating
voice: about how we observe others, sometimes spy on others, and
how we make judgements about them, sometimes intuitively or foolishly
or dangerously, and the consequences of those judgements. There
are some scenes of very peculiar interrogation in the trilogy’s
first part, Fever and Spear. On the other hand, when
I think of War and Peace, I think first of Pierre, who
does leap out of the novel for me, dragging along the scenes in
which I encounter him (watching the battle in his top hat, walking
through the streets of burning Moscow) — perhaps because
he’s a character who observes so much so acutely and undergoes
such an extraordinary transformation.
LISA: I think we call
something a soul after we witness a grand gesture, a remarkable
deed, a pivotal act. We see someone divorce, or murder, or give
birth or win the lottery even, and we think, I knew he had that
in him. He was like that even in the womb.
Once I asked Michael Winter to see if he could find me a William
Faulkner biography in the second-hand bookstores of Toronto. He
sent it and it was big and fat. The first line was: He was a colicky
baby. I didn't read any further. In fact I lost interest in biography
altogether with that sentence. I could not believe that the hammering
down of every detail of Faulkner's life, even with the painstaking
accuracy I knew was to follow, would bring me any closer to who
Faulkner was or how he managed to blow to smithereens all notions
of what fiction could be and do. Basically: his soul.
I think we have a deep desire for pattern,
order, cause and effect, when it comes to character. It is a need
for meaning. We want to believe that the grand gestures that seem
character-forming are part of a fabric, part of a whole, and that
a character can be knowable and predictable (even the unpredictable
acts are predictable if we have the full picture, we like to think)
— we need only look back on when that man was a child, and
when he was a teenager, his first kiss, his peanut butter sandwich,
his argyle socks, and we can say: Yes, he will triumph, I saw
it from a long way off. But these are stories, illusions, I think,
produced with hindsight. If this character fails, I imagine we
might just as easily think, Yes, I saw it coming, look at those
argyle socks, the peanut butter sandwich!
Virginia Woolf talks about "moments
of non-being" as the most important when capturing character.
I am not quite sure what she's talking about here, but I always
imagine, when I think of that phrase, Mrs. Ramsay climbing the
stairs of her country house, sitting at her vanity table, taking
the pins out of her hair, the light from the lighthouse sweeping
over her, and she is not just lost in thought, she is empty of
thought. She is present and empty at once, she is thoroughly herself,
she is not moving the plot forward — what the hell is she
doing there, halting the passage of time — and I think this
is where Viriginia Woolf locates her soul.
PETER: My response would
be that the soul of a character is maybe the nature and specificity
of what they desire... “I am what I want.” Or maybe,
“I am what I need.”
As for my being unconvinced that empathy is necessary to connect
readers to fictional characters: examples of characters I am intrigued
without feeling much empathy — well Kenneth Widmerpool in
Dance to the Music of Time. Of course fiction is loaded
with excellent, well-rendered nasty persons and I know that's
not quite what you meant...
CATHERINE: Is it also
the absolute particularity of a character’s circumstance
that allows us to empathize?
PETER: I say yes. Particularity,
specificity. A novel reader is looking to ride through the world
looking out through a different set of eyes for a while. You have
to supply literally the vision — what they are seeing when
they look out, specific and particular — and some sense
of the interior music, the machinery of thinking and feeling.
SHEILA: There has been
a lot of talk in this discussion about desire — a character's
desire defining them and creating empathy in us. I just want to
put in a word for limitations... more even than desire, this is
what I notice in people and myself and fictional characters —
the things we can and cannot do.
This is of course connected to desire.
The lonely man who wants a wife but is unable to trust even the
gardener... our limitations prefigure and shape our desires.
So I want to say that it's not only the
desires of the characters that we relate to, but knowing that
the desires come out of limitations, and observing these limitations
in action (or inaction) — this gives a feeling of a human.
CATHERINE: One of the
great contradictions of fiction, it seems to me, is that we aim
to expand ourselves by losing ourselves — losing ourselves
in the interiority of other characters, or the alien consciousness
of the writer whose words we’re reading. And so there’s
a tension, as we write, between the need for self-examination
and the need to lose one’s self.
Here’s American novelist Richard
Powers [in an interview in The Believer] speaking to
this sort of thing, from the perspective of reading: