Image Credit: All images created in Book Brush using Pixabay images.
One of the great roles of reading is it can encourage empathy, especially if your first choice for a good read is fictional.
Think about your favourite books (with their excellent covers, of course – see my recent series on those!).
Think about their characters. There will be characters you love to hate, or those you want to see overcome their difficulties and so on. What was it about those characters that made you feel that way (and a well portrayed character will make you feel something)?
When reading a book or story, you temporarily step away from the cares of this world and enter the story world. Given the difficulties caused by the pandemic, is it any wonder that sales of books have rocketed?
Reading is often seen as escapism but that is no problem for me! What’s wrong with escapism anyway? Escapism, when in story form, gives you time to step away from what else is going on and, when you do have to face the real world again, come back refreshed for having had that break.
Music has similar qualities here but reading has something extra. It gives you the ability to see, and therefore develop better understanding, of how others might live and why they make the choices they do. This can apply to non-fiction too as you step back in time to see how others had lived. (I know reading history often makes me feel so grateful for the things that are so easily taken for granted now. I just know had I lived in medieval times I would’ve been a peasant, illiterate, and probably not have got to the age I am now).
Asking Yourself Questions
By immersing yourself in your chosen story world, you can get to see how other people might live given the set of circumstances the story is showing you. A great question and one I often ask myself when reading is if I was facing this situation, would I act as this character has done?
Sometimes the answer is yes because I can’t see how the character would have an alternative. Sometimes I think the character has been an idiot and I would act differently. But for a brief while I’ve got under the skin of that character. I am seeing things through their eyes and I cannot think of a better way to encourage a greater sense of sympathy for where a character is coming from, even if you still disagree with what they do.
That sense of empathy could and should be extended to our fellow human beings in the “real” world.
Understanding My Characters
It is crucial I understand where my characters are coming from, otherwise I will not be able to do justice to their stories. I’ve got to know enough about them to want to write their stories up. I’ve also got to know enough about them to be convinced readers will want to follow their stories.
I use a simple template to work out what I think I need to know and, yes, this works for flash fiction. I ask fewer questions than I would for a longer piece of work, that’s all. The crucial thing I need to know, regardless of the length of story, is what the character’s major trait is as that in itself can trigger story ideas.
For example, if I know my character is pompous, I can set that character up to head for a fall. Characters like this are great for comic purposes. So I have a potential story structure and a theme here.
Often I will want to know why the character has that trait. If I’ve decided the character is brave, where has that courage come from? Were they forced to develop courage to be able to survive, say? Plenty of story ideas to come from answering those two questions alone.
Knowledge of Human Nature
The best stories reflect human nature. Naturally we do not always appear in a good light! But a basic understanding of how humans act and react and why in different situations is vital to successful story writing. If you don’t know how we would act and react, why would you know how your characters would act and react?
One purpose of storytelling is to show us something of ourselves. Storytelling can inspire us to be better. It can also encourage us. It can also reassure. But as readers we have to be able to identify with the characters to get those benefits.
If a character is cold and heartless, as Scrooge is in A Christmas Carol, there has to be some hope of redemption in the story to come to make us keep on reading. With a character like that, where his villainy is demonstrated clearly from the start, the hook for the reader is to make them wonder whether Scrooge will stay like that. Our instincts for how stories work tell us “no” immediately.
All stories pivot on a moment of change. So in this case we instinctively know Scrooge has to change somehow. The story revolves on how that change happens and what happens to him as a result.
All stories are about the what happens moment. Something has to happen. Something has to change.
Of course change in a story is not always positive.
For non-fiction the point of change is where you have learned something useful that you had not known before. Don’t discount “mere” entertainment either. The point of change here is you would’ve been entertained by the factual work you have just read.
Series like the Horrible Histories ones entertain and help educate and encourage a love of history (which I hope encourages people to read further into the topic). So sometimes the change then comes on the effect produced on the reader – you!
I hope this article does exactly that in showing why I think reading is so important in the role of encouraging empathy in readers. Reading really is good for us! The role of writers is to reach out and we can do that via our characters in fictional situations or with information useful to a reader.
Themes which Resonate
Great stories have themes which resonate with us all regardless of genre. (And stories can include non-fiction funnily enough. A good article will still show you something about the human condition. The character in it will be the narrator of that article and how they come across to you in what they have written).
Classic themes are good-v-evil, the need for justice to be seen to be done, the underdog going on to become so much more than that and so on. I have The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker and it is a fascinating but lengthy read. (Word to the wise: don’t drop the book on your foot. It is a weighty tome!). The theory behind each of the plots he lists is fascinating and it all ties in with knowledge of ourselves.
It is interesting that humans are the only ones on this planet for an absolute need for stories. We need them to take us out of ourselves. We need them to entertain. We need them to make us think. But to do all of that we need the characters to be ones we want to read about.
The challenge for the story writer is to keep on coming up with those characters. I believe you have to have a certain level of sympathy for your fellow humans to be able to write up characters they might want to read about. In understanding where my characters come from, I can better understand others.
I don’t always agree with my characters by the way. I can think of a few I would not want to meet in life (!) but I still know exactly why they are the way they are. Nobody says an author has to necessarily like their people!
A simple story is usually anything but simple. There would have been a lot of work in creating that story and even more in editing it so it is suitable for a market or competition. A character that engages you (as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice does for me) should trigger a sense of recognition.
In my case I recognise in Elizabeth her wish to be her own person and for marriage to be on her terms with the right person. It would’ve taken a lot for her to withstand the pressures to marry the odious Mr Collins. Her family’s well being depended on her marrying well. And she would have known that but she didn’t want to put up with second best. Now there’s a theme that still resonates and rightly so.
A good story with classic characters we can identify with is timeless. Yes, the language we use to express those stories might change but at heart, we will still know where those people are coming from. We will still root for their stories to have good outcomes. (Pretty much as we root for our own to do so as well I expect – there is a lot of psychology in stories).
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
Never miss out on another blog post. Subscribe here:
Subscribe to Blog via Email