The Quest for Character Empathy: I Like You, but I don't Know if I "Like You" Like You

Holding company with other writers is never boring. Where else, outside a support group for schizophrenics, can you talk about about an ongoing love affair or at least a yearning crush you have with someone you created in your mind and not be presented a dose of Zyprexa afterward? I know a number of writers, and all of them believe on a very deep, emotional level that the people they put into their stories are real. Real enough to feel genuine love and lust for them, happiness when they prevail, or grief should they perish.

Well, I have a confession to make. I've never wanted to have sex with any of my characters, and I've never fallen in love with them either. I can't think of my characters in the same context as I think of "real" people. No matter how much color, shading, and detail I slap onto that canvas, I can't simply do a Nestea Plunge into the thing.

Looking into a world I've created is instead akin to gazing into a magic mirror, a crystal ball, or rats in a behavioral maze experiment. I'm observing from above, pulling necessary strings, and recording the results. This may seem cold and detached, but I think it's a protective mechanism. There is a torrential current of emotion deep inside me, but it's dammed up nice and tight and I meter it out carefully in order to maintain control of it. This might result in characters that read a little flat at times, but this is why they invented editors and rewrites.

I find it strange, because in "real life," my ability to empathize has had great influence over the decisions I've made and the company I keep. It has been both a great asset and a great liability, both personally and professionally. One would think that the one place I'd be able to get my empathy on without restriction and reprisal would be in a world of my own creation, but that's what we call a paradox. In one sense, I tell myself the story I'm creating isn't "real" and therefore I can't get too close to it, but perhaps it's more a fear of the power of our illusions. Maybe I don't get too close, because on some primal, subconscious level, I fear being sucked in and never being able to find my way back out again.

But there is some relief in all of this. I'm not completely emotionally separated from my characters. Quite the opposite, in fact. I might not want to sleep with any of them, but I think this is due in part to the types of stories I write and the fact that my creativity has never been fueled by my libido. Instead, I feel it when they die. I feel it when they're scared, and when they're happy, but perhaps most palpable, I feel it when they're uncertain. This was never clearer than recently, when I went through a period of inner-turmoil with my book. Self-doubt permeated every word I wrote. I was so overly conscious about what I was doing, that I felt as if an editor were reading over my shoulders, disparaging my every decision, telling me this endeavor is not only great waste of time, but that it was almost laughably bad. I walked away that day defeated, disgusted, and convinced I'd never make a career as a storyteller.

But I prevailed, determined to write my way through that obstacle. Soon, the hero of the story had a breakthrough. Questions were answered, and his path was firmly decided. Stripped of all his doubt and uncertainties, he was able to forge ahead on a newly-defined road to the final showdown. When this happened, I too felt that vigor. I too felt that confidence. All that doubt fell away like a maiden's chastity belt on her wedding night, and I realized something. His uncertainty about finishing his quest was mine as well, only it transferred to me in the form of doubt about finishing this book. Really, they're one in the same. On the same token, his newfangled Hero status has also been transferred to me in the form of the belief that not only will I finish this book, but that I can also do more than just relate to my characters. I can become them.

Still, I think I'd rather just sleep with my husband. ;-)


  1. yeah! I am glad to hear you got the boost you needed to get you through the straights of doubt. Crummy little place where I hung out a bit myself.

    I never thought about sleeping with any of my characters. I felt too much like their mothers!

  2. If I counted the number of times I almost threw my hands up and walked away from this book, I'd probably still be counting. lol But something inside me just has to see it through. In spite of my doubt, I really do believe in the story. It's just working out all those details and loose ends that's a challenge. :)