How do we make someone whose actions are unpalatable worthy of readers’ empathy? We give them the emotional truth of the character’s situation.
In the afterword of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, author Amy Tan discusses the novel with friend, editor and fellow author, Molly Giles. Tan, known for using autobiographical elements in her stories, indicates that she chose to depict the “emotional truth” of her experiences opposed to fictionalizing actual events. Emotional truth resonates with me, both as reader and writer, because that frisson of honest feeling connects character to reader. Regardless of a story’s inspiration (eg, writer’s life, historical events, imagination), we want our readers to be engaged with our characters’ struggles. Some characters, of course, earn a reader’s regard with ease because their difficulties are readily observed and understandable. Orphaned children, as I noted in a different post, generate instant sympathy because of their youth and built-in disadvantages. The greater difficulty, however, lies in making less likeable characters sympathetic. How do we make someone whose actions are unpalatable worthy of readers’ empathy? We find ways show readers the emotional truth of the character’s situation.
It’s in the Details: Wording and Pacing
Writing about a difficult character’s emotional truth requires some finesse. Stating directly (through exposition or dialogue) that the character’s grief (for example) causes them to be antisocial lacks impact, particularly when the story relies heavily on that character’s perspective. Readers need insights into problematic behavior, so that they can relate to troubled or outright unlikable individuals. In The Girl on the Train, the musings of Paula Hawkins’s flawed primary protagonist and narrator, Rachel,[*] immediately provide small but revealing details [†] about her emotional landscape. We are alerted to the importance of these details by the word choices Hawkins employs.
On a morning train to London, Rachel observes clothing left next to the tracks when the train stops at a signal. Imagining reasons for their presence (including her allusion to a potentially sinister scenario), Rachel states that both Tom and her mother thought she had “an overactive imagination”. The negative connotation of this assessment hints that Rachel is perhaps unreliable, and she seems to tacitly agree with their judgement when she explains she cannot help but wonder about “the other shoe”. Hawkins word choices for the clothing—“discarded” and “abandoned” instead of a more neutral “mislaid”—suggests Rachel’s emotional viewpoint: she sees through the lens of rejection (she’s the lost shoe).[‡] As the train finally moves forward, Rachel desperately tries to focus on her newspaper, suggesting that she is avoiding some emotional trauma even as her mind wanders back to the lost items (the stand-in for herself). At this point, it difficult not to feel some pity for this sad woman.
Having subtly established Rachel’s feelings of abandonment and her unwillingness to address her pain, Hawkins exposes another side to Rachel. On the return trip later that day, Rachel drinks canned gin and tonic (“the taste of my first-ever holiday with Tom”, a man now mentioned twice and likely her “other shoe”), claiming (with a whiff of belligerence) she doesn’t “have to feel guilty about drinking on the train” since it’s Friday. Obviously, she does feel guilty despite her attempts to justify her behavior. Before she states she’ll be facing a beautiful weekend alone, the reader can surmise that Tom left her and she is drinking to cope with her pain.
As the first chapter progresses, the extent of Rachel’s drinking problem (and its role in her relationship’s dissolution) becomes evident: she pretends to go to work so her friend/landlord won’t discover she lost her job, she drunk calls her remarried ex-husband late at night, and recounts her shameful history of violent, drunken arguments. Had Hawkins first shown Rachel’s self-destructive behavior or how she lies and harasses people, readers could have dismissed her as an angry or pathetic drunk (as many characters in the novel do) and failed to see her fragility and remorse. While it’s impossible to overlook Rachel’s failings or trust her judgement, we cannot help but feel sorry for the mess her life has becomes, even as she embroils herself in a missing persons case.
How It’s Told: Narration and Character Voice
Hawkins paces her revelations about Rachel to lets readers appreciate her humanity before discovering her grievous faults in The Girl on the Train. Tan’s approach in The Bonesetter’s Daughter also involves controlling the reader’s early impressions of a difficult character, although Tan uses narration as her tool. LuLing Liu Young is not novel’s protagonist but her daughter is. Since Ruth narrates more than half the novel, her perceptions of their contentious relationship will influence the reader’s opinion of LuLing. Tan, therefore, has LuLing narrate the preface—a tactic that lets LuLing speak in her own voice,[§] without Ruth’s experiences overshadowing hers.
Luling’s account, however, starts as relatively straightforward exposition[**] and she states what she “knows to be true”: her name, those of her two deceased husbands (“our secrets gone with them”), and her daughter’s name along with a brief explanation of how she and her daughter are alike but opposite. While the casual mentions of secrets and possible opposition foreshadow some of the novel’s central problems, LuLing’s interest remains focused on names, in particular the one that eludes her repeated efforts (“a hundred times”) to recall it. Although she seems mildly frustrated (as most people are in such instances), she proceeds to vividly recounts the morning when Precious Auntie (a family member or perhaps her nursemaid) showed her surname to LuLing.
At this point, Tan uses narrative disruptions to strip away LuLing’s collected veneer and destabilize this “truth”. Still unable to recall the name Precious Auntie told her to never forget, LuLing abruptly breaks off her tale mid-sentence and claims she’s reviewed over “a hundred family names” to stir her memory. Earlier, the use of “hundred” seemed to be mere hyperbole; Tan’s repetition here highlights LuLing’s increasing agitation. Mentions of more secrets and other lost items also raise concerns about her memory. LuLing, switching topics again, now shares that she remembered the trunk containing her prized possessions for “so long [she] nearly forgot [she] had them”. When she opens the trunk, she discovers its contents were destroyed by insects. Devastated, she claims she’s lost everything she loved, with her greatest loss being Precious Auntie’s name.
Abandoning her account of “Truth” altogether, LuLing now implores the ghost of Precious Auntie to help her remember their name before asking the deceased woman if she remembers that she is her daughter. This last revelation is particularly astonishing because LuLing referred to another woman as “Mother” in her story about the lost surname. Whether LuLing is conflating the two women or inadvertently revealing who her mother truly is, her anguish at losing pieces of her past as her memory fails is apparent and we cannot help but feel her pain. Tan’s clever use of narration gives readers a glimpse into LuLing’s emotional world and effectively establishes sympathy for her before we meet her as the dissatisfied, argumentative and cantankerous woman Ruth calls mother.
The Core of Empathy
In fiction as with real life, it’s easy to empathize with the trials of those we like. Yet, difficult and troubled characters are perhaps those who need our empathy most, however off-putting they may be. Tan and Hawkins demonstrate how revealing a character’s emotional truth lets readers see past the labels defining them. As writers, our task is to find ways that guide readers to the core of these character’s humanity and challenge them to care.
[*] Hawkins’s novel is told through alternating perspectives of three women.
[†] Details about a character’s inner life are doubly crucial in a psychological thriller.
[‡] Rachel’s mention of “the other shoe” similarly evokes separation since shoes come in pairs, just as mentioning “the feet that belonged in them” also suggests dispossession.
[§] Being able to speak in her own voice is also important because English is not LuLing’s first language.
[**] We later discover that “Truth” is a document that she wrote for Ruth (who cannot read the Chinese calligraphy) some five or six years before the opening chapter and that Ruth hasn’t attempted to translate it yet.