As part of my Guest blog series for authors and fellow bloggers I am proud to present another guest blog spot. Edward M. Erdelac author of WITH SWORD AND PISTOL
Make sure you check out WITH SWORD AND PISTOL by Edward M. Erdelac
For more info on the book check out this link: http://www.ragnarokpub.com/#!with-sword-and-pistol/c37s
This book is out 8-17-15 from Ragnarok Publications. Check out their site here: http://www.ragnarokpub.com/
Empathy by Edward M. Erdelac
Recently a novel I submitted was rejected by a publisher because they said they weren’t ready to publish a book featuring a Nazi protagonist.
Now, the book didn’t actually have a Nazi protagonist, but it opened from a historically notorious Nazi’s point of view, and I strongly suspect the reader assigned to it didn’t read past the first chapter, because the main character of the 120,000 word novel was actually a twelve year old Jewish kid.
But it got me thinking about unsympathetic characters in fiction.
I think empathy is the greatest tool an author has in their kit. There’s a line from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch that goes;
“We all dream of being a child again. Even the worst of us.”
Unless you believe in The Bad Seed, that a person can be born inherently evil, then even the most dastardly villains in the whole of human history began as innocent children, and perhaps, in their most introspective moments as we all certainly do, long for a return to that time when their future was unwritten. In that regard, Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler have something in common.
Using empathy, an imaginative author should be able to extrapolate from that basic common experience that, while they themselves (hopefully) may never have deliberately caused someone else misery and pain, they have probably felt frustrated or afraid at some point in their lives, and that negative emotion has likely led their thoughts down dark paths which, though untrodden, were vivid at the time. A writer can navigate those untraveled roads and successfully chart them into a map which a reader can follow along, if they’re open to the trip.
At the end of this empathy, the natural destination is sympathy, or at least, understanding. This was Harlan Ellison’s intent with his gang novel Memos From Purgatory, and Richard Wright’s in his creation of Bigger Thomas.
In A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess asked us to follow a reprehensible, violent delinquent who assaults and rapes his way into prison, where his ability to make moral or immoral decisions is then stripped from him. It’s an uncomfortable journey, but one worth taking, and I think, puts the reader into the strange place of sympathizing with Alex DeLarge who is in effect, a villain.
George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman is another example. Flashman is arrogant, racist, opportunistic, misogynistic, and a gutless coward masquerading as a decorated war hero. He’s fortunate enough to come out of most of his adventures smelling like a rose, but there is tragedy to him if you look beneath the surface. The one woman he truly loves, his wife, is as unfaithful to him as he is to her. His children are worthless, spoiled layabouts and hate him. In Flashman And The Redskins, he meets an illegitimate offspring that’s the son he’s always wanted, and uncharacteristically offers to share his life with him only to be rejected. He realizes that this strapping, ideal scion became so without any of his influence. He’s a failure as a parent. He can shrug this off in time for the next misadventure, but it’s there forever. We feel his shortcoming.
The examples in popular entertainment are numerous. How many films have featured unsympathetic characters and asked us to see the humanity in them? Harry Lime in The Third Man. Kevin Bacon’s Walter in The Woodsman. Darth Vader. The opportunistic, amoral characters of the spaghetti westerns of Leone and Corbucci. The aforementioned The Wild Bunch. All of these characters have done terrible things. But Harry Lime is somehow loved by Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli. Walter comes to understand the damage he has wrought and act accordingly to prevent the crimes of another like him. Vader’s villainy is undone by his love for his son. Tuco has his brother. Pike Bishop and his gang wade into machinegun fire for their friend. Not all of them are heroic or repentant or redeemed, but we can catch a glimpse of the humanity buried inside.
My supernatural adventure collection With Sword And Pistol begins with the story of a condemned robber, a depraved sadist, and a crazed murderer in feudal Japan and ends with a novella about teenaged killers warring on the inner city streets of South Chicago. If I have done my job, these characters, though on the surface unlikable, are at their core human beings who deserve to have their stories told, as maybe all of us do.
It’s the burden of the writer to find the commonality of human experience in his or her characters and make them a window to places and situations a reader might not always choose to peer into, to extend the power of empathy to the reader who has agreed to travel down the road they’ve prepared.
The reader need only trust.
About the book: