Friday, November 30, 2007


Yesterday, I listened to the CBC's excellent news radio program "The Current", and a joking comment from it has made me ashamed of my own reactions to a particular news story.

It also made me think about creating empathy for one's fictional characters, but I'll get to that discussion--which seems embarrassingly trite in comparison--in a moment.

You've probably heard this story: An English schoolteacher working in Sudan allowed her class of seven-year-olds to name a teddy bear Muhammad. This was deemed insulting to the prophet. As a non-Muslim, she might have been sentenced to 40 lashes and six months in prison. A Muslim could have got the death penalty.

The Sudanese courts have been as reasonable as they can be, given they're constrained by Sharia law. The teacher was sentenced to fifteen days, with credit for time already served, and she's to be extradited. The authorities have already said she doesn't have to serve her full sentence once she has clearance to leave the country. They're being as sensitive and lenient as legally possible, and I applaud them for it.

Yes, there were protests today calling for the woman to be executed, but the demonstration was only about 1000 strong. Those are the wingnuts. Sudan might not be a particularly nice place, but please don't judge the whole country by its bigots. Every country has 'em.

All the same, I was feeling pretty outraged on behalf of this teacher. I'm an instructor at a college. I'm a woman. I've dreamed of working in an exotic country and I consider extremism in any religion to be frightening and evil. I really empathized with this woman.

What the radio announcer said that re-coloured all my perceptions of this issue was that if the teacher wanted to give the teddy bear a name that elicited zero response from the world, she should have named it "Darfur".


Hundreds of thousands of people have faced starvation in the Darfur region of Sudan. Why did this story about one schoolteacher elicit a stronger emotional response from me than all that horror?

The key is empathy. In my imagination, I can put myself in this woman's shoes pretty easily. I can feel terrified confusion on her behalf. Those in Darfur live radically different lives than I do, even when things are going well, and my ability to empathize with them isn't helped by the fact that I think of them as the number of people affected, not as individuals who are suffering.

Show me one person suffering, and you've got me. Show me a hundred thousand and my heart just faints; I end up feeling very little. It's emotional self-defence that has awful repercussions for humanity.

Robert McKee makes the point in his writing book, Story, that your protagonist must be empathetic. That's not the same as sympathetic; the main character doesn't need to be nice. However, the reader must see something of themselves in the protagonist--they cheer for the main character because they're really cheering for theirself.

Part of the power of fiction is that you can make a bland middle-class person truly understand what it feels like to be a junkie shuddering with desperation for their next fix, or a starving child riding with a desert caravan. In all cases, however, that happens because you made the reader see the parallels between that exotic character's life and their own. This really ties in with my previous post's point, that the reader goes into the world of the novel in order to discover theirself there.

The lesson to take away from the schoolteacher's tale is that if you want your reader to feel horror, make things specific. Focus on one person, not thousands. Then make sure the reader will recognize their own pain inside the character's. You've got to find what's universal and then make the reader see it also.

When you create a character, what do you focus on to get the reader on-side? How do you create empathy for your protagonist?

Do you focus on the character's internal life--on pain, fears, or universal aspirations and yearnings? Or do you create situations to put the character in that the reader will recognize from their own life--perhaps a fight with a malign boss, an immature lover or a hypercritical mother?

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