Struggle and Empathy

We’ve reached the final week of January, which always feels significant to me. A native Midwesterner, I’ve always thought of winter as an endurance test, and each signpost along the way—the end of January, Valentine’s Day, the NCAA basketball tournament, etc.—a mark that brings us closer to spring. Here in the Midwest, we earn our springs. We go through the cold and snow and ice, and because we endure, we deserve the warm days that finally are ours. I admit our winter this year has been fairly mild, but still, even the gray and damp attacks the spirit and we find ourselves longing for sun and flowers and trees and shrubs in bloom and long hours of light.

Our fictional characters want to live and prosper in the grand lives we all deserve. The characters in our nonfiction are no different. They, too, want to live lives of splendor. The problem, of course, is there are always struggles along the way. In nonfiction, we’re sometimes so wounded by the insensitive acts of others we have trouble finding our common humanity. We have difficulty imagining the pain of those who have hurt us. It’s understandable, of course, but I’m convinced the effort to empathize is worth it, not only for the sake of the writing, but also for our own sakes. If you’re writing a memoir, for instance, what might you do to humanize someone who hurt you? Could you, perhaps, recall a moment of vulnerability for that person? Maybe it’s a moment when that person didn’t realize you were watching them. Maybe you found some sort of document—a letter, a shopping list, a doodle—anything that gives you a glimpse into what that person may have been carrying that contributed to their poor behavior. We have to make the attempt to better understand people’s actions, so we can come to an awareness that those who hurt us aren’t so different from us. Maybe someone tells you a story about a relative, for instance, that surprises you with sympathy for that father, mother, sister, brother, etc. Or maybe you challenge yourself to imagine your relative as a small child. Put that person into an imagined scene in hopes of seeing something you ordinary wouldn’t.

We all have our struggles, but we all have the capacity for love, forgiveness, and deeper understanding.

Which brings me to characters in fiction and the need to let our main characters create their own trouble. In nonfiction, we have to reckon with events that happen, events that are sometimes random and without logic. In fiction, though, we’re money ahead if we let our characters’ actions cause their problems. Characters should create their own fates. Once we have a character into some sort of troubling situation of his or her own making, we shouldn’t hesitate to complicate the trouble even further, thereby increasing the intensity of the struggle. Don’t let the characters off the hook easily. Complicate the trouble, so the character has to make choices. Each of those choices should put increased pressure on the character until the highest moment of intensity leads to resolution.

Here’s a writing activity for fiction writers. A character is supposed to deliver a message to someone but decides not to. What sort of trouble does that decision create? What does the character do to try to get out of trouble?

And for nonfiction writers? Remember a time when you were supposed to do something but didn’t. What sort of trouble did your decision create for you? How do you feel about your decision as you look back on it from your present perspective? Does looking back give you any insight into yourself or others?

“Never underestimate the pain of a person,” the actor, Will Smith, says, “because in all honesty, everyone is struggling. Some people are better at hiding it than others.” Amen. Struggle is there to test people, both in fiction and in real life. In fiction, characters create their own trouble. In nonfiction trouble often happens to us. In both cases, the act of empathy is the greatest gift we can give.



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