I don’t know when it became acceptable to use “feel” as a noun, and I’m not sure I care for it much. I am still hoping it’s one of those trends that will naturally wither and die with time. You know, like “twerking.” O.o
Anyway, the topic of today’s essay is emotion. We all know those sappy people who always cry at the ASPCA commercials and can’t watch The Notebook without falling into a depression for a week after. Incidentally, I happen to know someone who doesn’t seem to evince much empathy at all. I will be using person X as a guide for this post, because it seems there are Xs on both sides of the equation I am studying, and even some in the middle.
Question: Why do we read fiction?
Answer: To escape reality. To experience a different world, another life. To feel something else, something more intense, passionate, or dangerous. Books allow us to live without fear, or to face our fear in the safety of our own thoughts.
The best books touch us on a deeply emotional level–and that is kind of the point.
Enter: Mr. X, the writer. Given the above purpose of a work of fiction, it then follows that X’s job as a writer is to make sure the reader connects emotionally with his fictional characters. Action drives the plot, but emotion makes it worth while. So what happens if Mr. X himself can’t connect with his own characters this way? The answer might surprise you…
It doesn’t matter. 😉 We, as writers, aren’t doing this to feel (though many, many, many do), we’re doing this to make readers feel. Personally, I can’t get emotionally involved with my characters while writing–I’d never finish a book. I’d never let a character suffer, or grow, or put themselves in dangerous situations in the name of honor or love. I’d wrap them up in bubble wrap and put them on a shelf. That would be one really boring book to read, wouldn’t you agree?
Mr. X doesn’t need to feel what his characters feel. He only needs to understand how they feel. It’s empathy, in the sense that he needs to know how a person would be affected by a certain action or outcome, but not to the point where he needs to feel those things himself.
The problem comes when this healthy disconnect veers off into outright apathy. It undermines the emotional flow of the story by either exaggerating a reaction, or understating it. A woman receives flowers from her lover for the first time and is so touched she breaks down crying. Probably a bit of an exaggeration there. Conversely, if she says an off-hand, “Thanks,” and tosses them aside in favor of finishing her crossword puzzle… you get the idea.
Balance must be preserved. Because if it isn’t, you really can tell reading the story. A tragedy should traumatize a character. A happy miracle should awe and uplift. If it doesn’t, you just lost me as a reader, because I will spend the rest of the book circling back to that moment when something should have happened differently. I will get frustrated with under-reactions, an annoyed with angst. “This person just got violently assaulted! What do you mean they just walked it off and went on with their day?? And what is wrong with this one, bawling her eyes out over THAT??”
Enter Mr. X, the reader. Assuming the writer has done his/her job, the rest is up to the reader. I’ve said it before–many times–and I’ll keep saying it. Readers get out of books what they read into them. If X can’t feel, all he’ll get out of the book is a few hours of watching the words change across pages of lines. It will be nothing but a convenient way to pass free time. When he is finished, he will set the book aside and forget about it. Mr. X is a hobby reader, and there is nothing much a writer can do to change that. But, as long as X has fun reading, does it really matter?
It does (or should) when he shows the same kind of apathy toward other pursuits. Watching movies, listening to music, interacting with people… You recognize this by the telltale signs. He gives a convincing impression of feeling, but there are times when it is quite obviously misplaced. He will laugh at his own joke, not realizing he’d just cruelly cut a loved one with a few choice words. He will try to make up for it by compulsively squeezing the life out of said individual with a hug the person doesn’t want, and did not ask for. He will interrupt a reader out of an intensely emotional scene which has them pressing their nose into the book’s pages just so he can get a hand reaching something on a high shelf. This version of Mr. X is not a pleasant person…
I guess the point of all this is that feeling can be an art form in and of itself. It can be savored, appreciated, or misunderstood and ignored. It makes life more colorful, and connects us to everything around. It’s kind of the whole point of books, movies, music, and art, which is why this humble writer enjoys them all so much.
And also, go watch French Kiss.