Empathy with characters: good AND evil? glad OR gory?

Empathy with characters:
what is it and who has it?

Empathy? Roughly, it’s feeling what another person is feeling, from their point of view. Even if that other person is fictional.
So readers may identify with the heroine in a romance, or with the spy in a thriller, or with the detective in a crime story.

Writing Regency romances, my aim was always that my [mostly female] readers would identify with my heroine and fall in love with my hero.

But readers don’t all react in the same way to our characters and our plots. And I’m beginning to wonder if age is one important factor in that.

Older readers may have less tolerance for violence and gore

murder will out

If so, is it because older readers empathise more with characters who are victims? Or just that older readers go off violence?

Older readers have more experience of life, because (obviously) they’ve lived more of it. So maybe they’re more nuanced in their reactions both to victims and to violence, having seen what suffering can do in real life.

Or is it maybe to do with their awareness of mortality? Young people often act on the assumption that they are immortal. Older people know they’re not. So, maybe, they prefer not to be reminded in too much detail of what the end might involve. Especially if it’s really nasty and graphic.

Horror in Films and Books : What happens to Empathy?

As a student, I eagerly watched the film of A Clockwork Orange. I recall discussing it with mates, focussing on its deep meaning. Did we discuss how violent it was? Or what happened to the victims in it?

I don’t recall that we did.
We had greater philosophical questions to address. Soggy empathy with victims had no place in those.

Nowadays, I would run a mile from a screening of A Clockwork Orange. Partly because I can still remember parts of it, all these years later. They are burned into my memory and I don’t want to go there again.

For similar reasons, I don’t go to horror movies or read horror novels.

Squeamish, moi?? Maybe.
An older reader? ‘Fraid so.

Until recently, I’d never managed to finish a Stephen King novel (though I didn’t try any of them when I was a “bright young thing”). His Misery, a book I bought a few years ago and junked after just a few pages, still managed to give me nightmarish memories.

And I stopped reading Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta books some years ago because the gore level was increasing, book by book, to a level I found unbearable.

Other readers clearly disagree. I gave up after book 5. There are now more than two dozen Scarpetta books. Bestsellers, all of them.

Empathy with villains?

Some writers write sunny novels that are villain-free zones. And lots of readers love them and can’t wait to immerse themselves in that wonderful and unreal world.

Other writers get deep inside the minds of their villains. And it can be very uncomfortable or even distressing for readers. Yet lots of readers love those novels, too, and can’t get enough of them.

A personal case study : empathy with a villain

Recently —and for the very first time — I finished a Stephen King novel, for a book group discussion. It was Mr Mercedes, a thriller rather than horror. I found it a real page-turner. (It is gory, but nothing like as nightmarish as his horror novels.)

Will I read another Stephen King? There, I’m not sure and I think that’s a lot to do with the portrayal of the villain.

Mr Mercedes isn’t a detective story. [Spoiler Alert] We know who the villain is, early on. The question for the page-turning reader is whether the villain will be caught before he kills again. But… and for me, it’s a big but… the reader is taken right inside the head of the villain with all his warped and evil plans and desires.

As a writer, I can accept that the novel might not have worked as well if we’d seen the villain from the outside only. But as a reader — and an older, squeamish one at that — I felt increasingly uncomfortable at being invited to empathise with a sadistic, self-focused mass murderer.

Empathy Lessons for Writers?

Are there lessons here for writers, depending on the market we’re writing for?

Writing romance isn’t too much of a problem on the empathy front, especially if we’re providing a happy ending. Hero and heroine are together, in love. The villain — if there’s a real villain rather than just a second love interest, vying for the heroine — will have got his just deserts. But we won’t have been inside his head. Romance authors don’t want the reader to empathise with The Other Man.

If we’re writing for, say, a younger market, can we be more cavalier with the violence and gore? And the villainy?

If we’re writing Science Fiction, with a greater proportion of young and/or male readers, can we spray around the plasma and laser weapons and ignore the heaps of body parts our heroes climb over?

Should we linger over the mutilated body of the crime victim in our detective story?

Maybe. It’s certainly what happens in films and TV drama.

But I think we have to be more careful with books.
Because in books, the reader is inside the head of some of the characters in a way that the film or TV audience is not. And each reader is cultivating his or her own mental movie of what’s happening in the book, based on the seeds the writer has sown in the reader’s imagination.

When you create your own movie, in your own imagination, the pictures are always more powerful than external ones. I think it was a wise child who said, “Radio has the best pictures.”

Reading can give you enduring pictures, too. 

6 thoughts on “Empathy with characters: good AND evil? glad OR gory?

  1. Sue McCormick

    OK, I AM an older reader (90 this fall). As far as I can tell (and subjective memory is always selective) I gave up horror reading in my teens and 20s (Lovecraft and some better ones, whose writers have forgotten. This is just NOT my thing. I did Clockwork Orange (the novel) and Clockwork Orange (the movie) and I won’t go back. Not worth it (and in my opinion, not fair).

    I have always read SF, including space opera where there are galaxies full of bodies, but I don’t read the modern distopias.

    I recently finished Mary Balogh’s early “Secrets of the Heart,” thought about her equally villainous villain in “Heartless” and said to my husband “How can authors get inside the heads of this type of person like Mary Balogh and Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs) do?” I won’t read Thomas Harris, but I have re-read Heartless and will re-read “Secrets of the Heart.” So, for me, it IS about the happy ending and the “fairness” of life (which you find in Science Fiction as well as Romances), and not about the inside of the villain’s head.

    I read for entertainment and relaxation so I can gird up for tomorrow. I KNOW real life isn’t fair, but I want my fiction to allow me to escape for awhile. Though you will notice from the above that I expect true problems. I can tolerate suspense, but I want it to resolve on the happy side in the end.

    1. Joanna Post author

      That’s a really interesting perspective on empathy, Sue. Happy endings and fairness. Yes, I’d go with that. Villains, real villains, have to get their just deserts. Generally, in SF (and also in fantasy) they do, in spite of all the blasted bodies along the way. And yes, I read SF&F too, bodies and all. But, like you, I do wonder how authors can bear to be inside the head of Thomas Harris-type villains. It’s not something I could do. I do write villains (though under a pseudonym, not as Joanna Maitland) but I’ve never had any wish to be inside their heads. If that makes my story less compelling for some readers, so be it.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    Hands up here as an older person. I think I’ve seen too much of the blood and gore by now, any more is overkill. But I do like dystopia. Not for the body count, but for the depiction of the human spirit which refuses to be kept down and finds a way through to a better life no matter the ghastliness of the circumstances. That’s of course why heroes are heroes. They have the guts to do something about it.

    Sometimes it’s interesting to see inside the villainous head, but it’s still as hard to understand as any act of apparent mindless or ruthless violence. The author has got to twist the character’s mind and that in itself is interesting to me. But I can’t say I enjoy such excursions!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Liz. Yes, I like dystopia too, and for the same reasons as you. (I’d need to like it, wouldn’t I, since I write it under my non-Joanna pseudonym? 😉 ) It is about the human spirit, exactly as you say, and our innate sense of fairness and justice.

      My problem with being inside a villainous head (written by someone else) is that the mental images tend to stay with me and I find them disturbing. Possibly I have too much empathy, while the villain in question probably has none at all?

  3. lesley2cats

    Sue’s comment above, about empathy and fairness hits the nail on the head. (Sorry about the cliche.) As you know, I don’t write romance but traditional mysteries. And I’ve found, as I grow older, that in my reading I retreat further and further into the Golden Age past. I can’t take thrillers – the suspense is too much – and I’m not fond of the gorier side of crime fiction. I’ve also become less tolerant of SF and F, although occasionally I’m still willing to suspend belief – or is it disbelief? – in the case of timeslip novels. But it’s the empathy angle that is important to me, because that’s what my little band of readers like about my own books, they appear to like the characters. And this is the same with romance, isn’t it? And it’s why so many people, including me, really didn’t like Joanne Rowling’s Casual Vacancy. There wasn’t an empathetic character in it. Sorry – am I ranting again? 🙂

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Lesley. I do agree and I know why lots of readers (including me) love your Libby Serjeant books. I can’t comment on The Casual Vacancy because I haven’t read it. OTOH, I have read 2 of her Robert Galbraith books and, for me, they’re getting a bit too indulgently gory so I probably won’t continue to buy them.

      I do wonder if publishers are partly to blame, by telling authors to do more and more violence and gore? Some readers do like it. But I think a lot, like me, don’t.

Comments are closed.