Making 'em suffer: The downside of empathy

Empathy is an interesting word. In common parlance, it describes the ability to understand what it would be like to be in someone else's position - to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes. Its meaning is more complex in psychological circles, where it's considered a personality trait that you can have more or less of, but the gist is still the same: awareness and understanding of the feelings of another person.

This sounds like a great - even necessary - trait for a writer to have, doesn't it? If you're going to wrest a tear from a reader's eye when your heroine loses the love of her life, then you'll need to be able to understand how she feels so you can convey the full extent of her desolation to your readers.

While there have doubtless been many successful narcissistic writers (and narcissists are defined by a lack of empathy), these writers are far more likely to have been renowned for their dashing prose - oh my, what a turn of phrase! - than for their perspective taking abilities. Narcissists can really only see the world from their own point of view, and they live to impress, not understand. Other people are of interest only insofar as they impact on the narcissist.

So empathy, for a writer, is an excellent thing to have. Yet, like most good things, it has a downside. It's not always helpful, for instance, when it comes to making characters suffer - and suffer they absolutely must. There's a saying in writing circles that 'if your characters are having a good time, your reader is not'. I've no idea who initially penned it, but it's true. Page turners are built on the back of conflict. When your hero or heroine is in trouble, you just have to keep reading until you know how things turn out. Good writers keep us trapped in this state until they're good and ready to release us.

Which leads me to my problem.

I'm redrafting Soundscape (my first novel) at the moment, having just received some valuable feedback from Jo-Anne and Richard. What do I need to do? Make my heroine suffer more. Make my hero less nice. Inflict more pain. Create trouble. Start arguments.

It's a tough gig for an empath, and it isn't as if I'd shirked my responsibilities in the first place. My characters already had their struggles to overcome and I was already feeling bad for it - inflicting suffering doeesn't come naturally. But what can you do? There's nothing else for it. It has to be done. I'm going to have to man up and make their lives even more difficult than they already are.

My one consolation is that it's fiction.

Velvet and Nemo chasing.JPG