Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Characters in Novels: People Like Us?

by Sue Carver

What distinguishes novel writing from other artistic endeavours is the necessary and unavoidable affinity that novelists have with their subject-matter: people. According to E. M. Forster, characters in novels are “word-masses” made up by the novelist “…conditioned by what he guesses about other people, and himself”. 1

Characters in novels differ from people in life in one important respect: to a greater or lesser extent, their inner lives are revealed. That we can fully understand characters in novels when, in life, people – including ourselves – are essentially unknowable seems to be a large part of the novel’s appeal. Great novels evoke a real sense of the unique consciousnesses of the characters portrayed and it is on that aspect of character creation that I will focus here.

Surface and Depth

Writers can choose to stay on the surface, portraying character via speech and behaviour, as in this extract from Hemingway 2:

The doctor went out on the porch. The door slammed behind him. He heard his wife catch her breath when the door slammed.
“Sorry,” he said, outside her window with the blinds drawn.
“It’s all right, dear,” she said.
He walked in the
heat out the gate and along the path into the hemlock woods.
 or to dive deep, giving thoughts and emotions in addition, like McEwan:
Willing himself not to, he raised the book to his nostrils and inhaled. Dust, old paper, the scent of soap on his hands, but nothing of her. How had it crept up on him, this advanced stage of fetishizing the love object? ... He had spent three years drily studying the symptoms, which had seemed no more than literary conventions, and now, in solitude, like some ruffed and plumed courtier come to the edge of the forest to contemplate a discarded token, he was worshiping her traces - not a handkerchief, but fingerprints! - while he languished in his lady’s scorn.” 3

Regardless of which approach is chosen – surface or deep – every utterance, gesture, thought and feeling needs to be consistent with the writer’s empathic understanding of his or her fictional characters.

Empathy in therapy and fiction 

Carl Rogers, humanistic psychologist and creator of the person-centred approach to therapy, described empathy as the “… understanding of the client’s world as seen from the inside. To sense the client’s private world as if it were your own, but without losing the ‘as if’ quality – this is empathy.” 4

Drawing a distinction between empathy and the related concepts of sympathy and identification is vital for my day job, clinical psychology. I also find it valuable to have in mind when creating fictional characters.
Flaubert is often quoted as having said: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi, d’apr├Ęs moi ...” (Madame Bovary is me, based on me). By his own account, Flaubert appears to sail perilously close to identification: a psychological process by which an individual assimilates an aspect, property, or attribute of another. In my view, he does himself an injustice: empathy is in evidence in Madame Bovary, not identification. 

Too close identification of novelists with their characters can produce results in fiction that are as messy as they are in therapy, the most extreme example of this being the creation of ‘Mary-Sue’  characters, which are little more than wish-fulfilments of the author, projected onto the page.  Ensuring the necessary degree of objectivity required by empathy, I suggest, poses the greatest challenge for the author when writing characters that are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical.

Can Empathy Be Enhanced?

The role of the novel in shaping empathy in readers has been debated for centuries. Recent research offers support for George Eliot’s bold declaration: “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, then it does nothing.” 5

Does empathy felt while reading fiction cultivate a sense of connection, which leads to altruistic actions on behalf of real others?  In “Empathy and the Novel” (2007) 6, Suzanne Keen – drawing on psychology, neuroscience, literary history and philosophy – concludes that while certain novels can provoke empathy in readers, this does not necessarily translate into altruistic behaviour. She observes that the greater the degree of ‘fictiveness’ a given novel has – according to the readers’ perceptions – the more likely they are to empathise with its characters.

As with many complex human qualities with profound implications for social functioning, the foundations for empathy are laid down in early childhood, with both nature and nurture coming into play. The ability to empathise is likely to be on a continuum and there will be individual differences with regard to how well-developed this capacity is.

What if empathising with one’s fellow human beings isn’t a particular strength? Can one learn to increase empathic understanding? Research into the enhancement of empathy in adulthood is thin on the ground, but what there is suggests that there is greater plasticity than was previously thought. For example, a very recent study indicated that ‘imagining and enacting oneself as an imaginary other’ can enhance empathy in adolescents (Goldstein and Winner, in press) 7.

In this, and other studies in this area, role-play was used, but I see no reason why the sustained cognitive and emotional effort required to create fictional characters, and to follow their journey through the course of writing a novel, should not enhance empathy. The good news for fiction writers is that this aspect of writing fiction, along with others, may well improve with time and effort, but we won’t necessarily become more altruistic in the process.

1.    E. M Forster, Aspects of the Novel
2.    Ernest Hemingway, The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife
3.    Ian McEwan, Atonement
4.    Carl. R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy           
5.    George Eliot, letter to Charles Bray
6.    Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel
7.    Goldstein, T.R. and Winner, E. Enhancing Empathy and Theory of Mind, Journal of Cognition and Development (2011 in press)

Sue Carver, consultant clinical psychologist and writer of fiction and poetry, has a keen interest in the psychological aspects of the creative writing process. She doesn’t entirely agree with Erica Jong that “all writing problems are psychological problems...”, but she would be happy to consider, from a psychologist’s perspective, any writing-related questions that you may like to pose. 

Her Q and A column, Carver’s Couch, will appear in the October issue of WWJ. Please send your questions to: with the subject heading Carver’s Couch. 

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