Hazel McHaffie

The price of empathy

Elizabeth Jane Howard, author of the novels based on her own family history that became known as The Cazalet Chronicle, (recently serialised on Radio 4) has said that ‘You cannot be a good writer without empathy.‘ Too right, I thought. You have to enter the lives and hearts of your characters, to understand how they tick, how they react, in order to create believable three dimensional people. Fair comment.

I’d go further and say that in my experience, involvement with your own fictional characters means you pay quite a hefty price as their creator. You feel their pain. You struggle with them. You grieve with them. They keep you awake at night.Right to Die

This phenomenon was at its most acute for me when I was writing Right to Die, the story of a young man who develops Motor Neurone Disease. It so happened that several members of my family were quite seriously ill at the time – indeed one of them actually died in reality on the day I ended the life of my main protagonist. Traumatic in more ways than one. I was a wrung out rag for ages after completion of the book.

Double TroubleThen there was Double Trouble (a tale of one family’s attempts to overcome infertility). Not only I, but a number of readers have been seriously upset by the violence done to the main character in that. One of my colleagues in the Institute of Medical Ethics said he couldn’t talk to me about it for a week; he had to recover first. I really really didn’t want it to happen myself, but it did. I was there. I was simply recording what took place in that bedroom. I was distressed twice over: both witnessing it and again describing it.

Oh, and I still shed a tear at the end of Saving Sebastian Saving Sebastianwhen Sebastian’s mother appears at a medical conference to tell her story and reveals an unexpected twist in the tale. It’s my happiest book to date, I’ve read it countless times, and I know what happens, yet it still tugs at my heart strings.

But in a way I see this as some kind of a barometer. If I don’t care about these characters how can I expect other people to? After all, I conceived them, nurtured them through the gestatory period, and gave birth to them. I tracked their thoughts and actions intimately. So of course I empathise with their agony – perhaps even more than their ecstacy. I was there at their end too, so naturally I stand at their graves and weep …

… except that … I must confess …

Oh dear, I’ve remained dry eyed throughout the writing of Over my Dead Body. Hmm. Should I be worried? Should I even share such a revelation?

This latest novel has the usual quota of tragedy, moral dilemmas, and heartbreak. It’s about a troubled woman, Carole, who loses her daughter and granddaughter in a car crash. It includes harrowing decisions about whether or not to use their organs. It reveals tense relationships, sibling rivalries, haunting secrets. We also peep into the lives of those struggling with life-limiting conditions who might or might not be saved as a consequence of Carole’s choices. In fact, the characters were initially so burdened emotionally that a number of my early reviewers and critics strongly suggested – even begged me to tone down the problems. One said she felt ‘coshed’; two said they cried throughout; others said they felt drained. So I did.

But me?  Ahhhhh, therein lies the issue. I’ve lain awake listening to Carole and Guy and Oliver and Sarah and all the others. I’ve worried – agonized even – with them, I’ve woken stressed by their quandaries, but no, I haven’t cried with them.

So … am I getting hard in my old age? Am I inured to tragedy? Or am I unmoved by these particular characters? If so, that blows my empathy theory right out of the water. Help!

Are the characters one dimensional? Or wooden? Or unsympathetic? Are the situations and dialogue implausible? Well, I’ve had more than the usual amount of positive feedback for this book: so I’m pretty confident that readers do care and they do weep.

So it’s me then. I can assure you, Ms Howard, I do empathise with my characters. I do. I DO! I must then modify my declaration: it is not necessary for the author to be reduced to tears. Is that OK with you?

PS. For your eyes only … until the final manuscript goes for publication I shall continue my vigilance and analysis … and keep worrying!

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