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
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.
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?
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 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.”