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“. . . the best literature reaches across the boards to people from every walk of life. Regular folk can relate solely through story, character, and situation . . .”
Lisa Mannetti, An Interview with Lisa Mannetti – Part I
Over the weekend, Kathryn Magendie wrote a super post on writing what you know through empathy, projection, and perception. As I was pondering Kat’s comments, I recalled Lisa Mannetti’s comments from her interview here on helluo librorum on what makes a novel or story literary.
At that point, something in my wee brain clicked. Lisa defined literary, and Kat’s post shows you how to achieve that goal to make your work timeless. The equation boils down to the empathy a writer is able to draw from the reader for the characters. The novels we return to again and again aren’t about “things” or “places” so much as they’re about people and their struggles for love and acceptance.
Think about what makes Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon so timeless. While many people are initially drawn to the novel by their love of Arthurian tales, it is really Morgaine’s story. Avalon is loved my multiple generations of fantasy fans primarily because of the empathy Bradley creates within the reader for Morgaine and the other women in her life. Bradley reaches into these women to draw on themes of loyalty and love to create multi-dimensional characters that will speak to generations to come.
Peter S. Beagle creates empathy for his protagonist in his poignant tale, The Last Unicorn. Here the protagonist is not even human, but by the end of the novel, the reader is so drawn into the unicorn’s story it no longer matters. Beagle imbues her with human yearning and gives her a chance to become mortal long enough to experience love. The Last Unicorn is truly a classic, and the primary reason is the empathy Beagle is able to create between the reader and his characters. The tale is timeless.
I have no idea what it feels like to be held prisoner, but I know what it feels like to be helpless in the face of forces I can’t control. That helplessness is the emotion I must communicate to my reader, and I can transmute my personal experience into my protagonist’s situation. This is how I create empathy for my protagonist. Not by telling you he is a prisoner, but by allowing you to experience his helplessness through his point of view.
Look at your own stories. Are your readers empathizing with your characters? Do you think your story can reach out to all kinds of people? Do you want your fiction to speak to the heart? What are some of your favorite works of literature and how did the author’s work speak to you?