“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
― Harper Lee,
― Harper Lee,
2/24/16 - Inside of His Skin
A fitting quote for today, given the recent passing of beloved Southern author Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird has long been revered, but last week, after news of her death, I think many of us flipped back through it, reminding ourselves why multiple generations have found meaning in this classic work. It is a book about empathy. A book Harper Lee could not have written if not for her own empathy.
I've blogged about the importance of empathy before, but I think it bears repeating here in the 101 series. It's the author's job to place you, the reader, inside the skin of each character. Help you understand their minds, and the conclusions they've drawn about life thanks to their unique experiences. I think Southern authors (like Lee) do this really well. Hero, villain, moral, or amoral, they put you right there in that character's head, in that character's life, and make it all feel reasonable - even if you aren't rooting for that character.
Through empathy, the author can come to understand a character with whom she has nothing in common. And this is essential. You want a wide range of characters in your work; lots of different viewpoints, different belief systems, different moral codes. You want a tapestry of humanity, not a box of clones. And with that tapestry comes a handful of characters the audience might not like or love, but who are an essential part of the story.
An empathetic author will create more realistic characters. But there will always be those readers who can only empathize with one type of character - generally characters they think are most like them. I always get a kick out of the disgruntled reviewers who are outraged by the illegal or violent actions of my characters. Number one, I would point out that they are outlaw bikers, and I think that's pretty self-explanatory. Remember, literary fiction, not romance from me. And number two, I love that they had a reaction. Horrified by something Mercy did? Awesome. I meant for it to be horrifying. Ava approving of his violence isn't the same as ME approving of his violence. Which I don't. I don't endorse the behavior of any of my characters, but seek to keep them authentic and realistic. Which, given the outlaw world they live in, means authentic is a little darker than your average suburban life experience.
THAT is the great fun of literature: we can walk in someone else's shoes for a little while. Live inside their skin. See the world from their perspective, and maybe learn something about ourselves along the way. Never underestimate the value of empathy in your writing. Seek not to make your character loveable - make them real, and some readers will love them for exactly the messed-up person they are.