Back To Life! A Personal Grief Guidebook

Personal Guidebook to Grief Recovery

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Despite feeling sorry for a character who is experiencing, say, loneliness, the reader may not feel the loneliness itself. But through empathy with the character, the reader will feel what the character is feeling. Empathy is a much more powerful emotion than sympathy.

Sometimes when a wife goes into labor a husband will also suffer labor pains. This is an example of empathy. The husband is not just in sympathy; he empathizes to the point of suffering actual, physical pain.

Say you go to a funeral. You don't know the deceased, Herman Weatherby; he was a brother of your friend Agnes. Your friend is grieving, but you're not. You didn't even know Herman. You feel sorry for Agnes because she's so sad.

The funeral service has not started yet. You and Agnes go for a walk in the churchyard. She starts to tell you what her brother Herman was like. He was studying to be a physical therapist so that he could devote his life to helping crippled kids walk. He had a wonderful sense of humor, he did a great Richard Nixon imitation at parties, and once in college he threw a pie in the face of a professor who gave him a D. Sounds like Herman was a fun guy.

As Agnes brings her brother back to life so you can get to know him, you begin to feel something beyond mere sympathy. You begin to sense the loss to the world of this intelligent, creative, wacky man—you are beginning to empathize with your friend, and now you begin to feel the grief your friend is feeling. Such is the power of empathy.

Now then, how does a fiction writer get the reader to empathize?

Say you're writing a story about Sam Smoot, a dentist. Sam's a gambler. He loses $2 million to a mobster and is ruined, and his family is ruined as well. How do you get the reader to empathize? The reader may feel sorry for his family, but may also feel that Sam got what was coming to him.

Even so, you can gain empathy.

You do it by using the power of suggestion. You use sensuous and emotion-provoking details that suggest to the reader what it is like to be Sam and to suffer what he is suffering. In other words, you create the story world in such a way that readers can put themselves in the character's place:

A cold wind gusted down Main Street and the wet snow had already started to fall. Sam's toes felt numb in his shoes, and the hunger in his belly had started gnawing at him again. His nose was running. He wiped it on his sleeve, no longer caring how it looked.

By using sensuous and emotion-provoking detail, you bring the reader inside Sam's world to experience what Sam is experiencing. You can win empathy for a character by detailing the sensuous details in the environment: the sights, sounds, pains, smells, and so on that the character is feeling—the feelings that trigger his emotions:

Sam woke up on the third day and looked around. The room had white walls and there were white curtains over the window. A large-screen TV was mounted high on the wall. The sheets smelled clean, and there were flowers on the table next to the bed. He felt his body. It was hard to tell it was there because it wasn't cold and it wasn't hurting. Not even his belly, which had been hurting now for so long ...

Such emotion-provoking sensuous details, through the power of suggestion, will evoke the reader's emotions and propitiate the reader's empathy.

Here's an example of emotion-provoking sensuous detail from Stephen King's Carrie:

She [Carrie] put the dress on for the first time on the morning of May 27, in her room. She had bought a special brassiere to go with it, which gave her breasts the proper uplift. ... Wearing it gave her a weird, dreamy feeling that was half shame and half defiant excitement.

Notice how the detail (the brassiere, the proper uplift) and the emotion (a weird, dreamy feeling, half shame, half excitement) are tied together. A few paragraphs later, Carrie's uptight mother opens the door:

They looked at each other.

Hardly conscious of it, Carrie felt her back straighten until she stood straight in the patch of early spring sunshine that fell through the window.

The back straightening is symbolic defiance, a powerful emotion tied to the sensuous detail of standing in the patch of light.

Sympathizing with Carrie because her mother is persecuting her, the reader identifies with her goal to go to the prom, and empathizes with her because the author creates the reality with emotion-provoking sensuous details.

In The Red Badge of Courage Stephen Crane strives to evoke empathy by using the same kind of emotion-provoking sensuous details this way:

One gray dawn, however, he was kicked in the leg by the tall soldier, and then, before he was entirely awake, he found himself running down a wooded road in the midst of men who were panting from the first effects of speed. His canteen banged rhythmically upon his thigh and his haversack bobbed softly. His musket bounced a trifle from his shoulder at each stride and made his cap feel uncertain upon his head. ... The youth thought the damp fog of early morning moved from the rush of a great body of troops. From the distance came a sudden spatter of firing.

He was bewildered. As he ran with his comrades he strenuously tried to think, but all he knew was that if he fell down those coming behind would tread upon him. All his faculties seemed to be needed to guide him over and past obstructions. He felt carried away by a mob. ... The youth felt like the time had come. He was about to be measured ...

Notice the details that connect with his senses: the dampness of the fog, the banging of the canteen against his thigh, the bobbing of the haversack, the bouncing of his rifle, the cap uncertain upon his head. Crane carefully constructs the reality of war out of small details leading to the youth's feelings that he's being "carried away by a mob" and is "about to be measured." The reader is in sympathy with the hero (and would feel sorry for any man about to face possible death in combat), identifies with his goal (to find his courage and prove himself a man), and empathizes with him because the reality of the situation is created through emotion-provoking sensuous detail.

Here's an example from Jaws:

Brody sat in the swiveled fighting chair bolted to the deck, trying to stay awake. He was hot and sticky. There had been no breeze at all during the six hours they had been sitting and waiting. The back of his neck was already badly sunburned, and every time he moved his head the collar of his uniform shirt raked the tender skin. His body odor rose to his face and, blended with the stench of the fish guts and blood being ladled overboard, nauseated him. He felt poached.

The reader is put squarely in that chair, feeling the chafe of the collar, the heat of the sun, the nausea. Brody is in an unpleasant holding pattern, waiting for the shark.

Kafka has K. in a similar situation, waiting for his trial:

One winter morning—snow was falling outside the window in a foggy dimness—K. was sitting in his office, already exhausted in spite of the early hour. To save his face before his subordinates at least, he had given his clerk instructions to admit no one, on the plea that he was occupied with an important piece of work. But instead of working he twisted in his chair, idly rearranged the things lying on his writing table, and then, without being aware of it, let his outstretched arm rest on the table and went on sitting motionless with bowed head.

hgain, it's the details: the foggy dimness, twisting in his chair, letting his outstretched arm rest on the table, and so on.

Sympathy, identification, and empathy all help to create an emotional bond between the reader and the characters. ht this point you are on the brink of transporting your reader.


When transported, the reader goes into a sort of bubble, utterly involved in the fictional world to the point that the real world evaporates. This is the aim of the fiction writer: to bring the reader to the point of complete absorption with the characters and their world.

In hypnosis, this is called the plenary state. The hypnotist, in control, suggests that the subject quack like a duck, and the subject happily complies. If a fiction writer gets the reader into the plenary state, the reader weeps, laughs, and feels the pain of the character, thinks the character's thoughts, and participates in the character's decisions.

Readers in this state can be so absorbed they have to be distracted, often physically shaken, to get their attention. "Hey, Charlie! Put that book down! Dinner's ready! Hey! You deaf?"

So how do you get the reader from sympathy, identification, and empathy to being totally absorbed? The answer: inner conflict.

Inner conflict is the storm raging inside the characters: doubts, misgivings, guilts, remorse, indecision. Once in sympathy, identification, and empathy with the characters, the reader will be open to suffer their pangs of remorse, feel their guilt, experience their doubts and misgivings, and, most important of all, take sides in the decisions they are forced to make. These decisions are almost always of a moral nature and have grave consequences for the character. His or her honor or self-worth will be at stake.

It is this participation in the decision-making process, when the reader is feeling the character's guilt, doubts, misgivings, and remorse, and is pulling for the character to make one decision over another, that transports the reader. Here's an example from Carrie. In this scene, Carrie is awaiting her date for the prom, not knowing whether he will come:

She opened her eyes again. The Black Forest cuckoo clock, bought with Green Stamps, said seven-ten. (he'll be here in twenty minutes) Would he?

Maybe it was all just an elaborate joke, the final crusher, the ultimate punch line. To leave her sitting here half the night in her crushed-velvet prom gown with its princess waistline, Juliet sleeves and simple straight skirt—and her tea roses pinned to her left shoulder ... Carrie did not think anyone could understand the brute courage it had taken to reconcile herself to this, to leave herself open to whatever fearsome possibilities the night might realize. Being stood up could hardly be the worst of them. In fact, in a kind of sneaking, wishful way she thought it might be for the best i— (no stop that)

Of course it would be easier to stay here with Momma. Safer. She knew what They thought of Mom ma. Well maybe Momma was a fanatic, a freak, but at least she was predictable ...

Notice how, when the character is in the throes of an inner conflict, there's an equal pull in two directions. Carrie desperately wants to go to the prom, yet it's so much safer to stay home.

Franz Kafka puts Joseph K. in the throes of an inner conflict like this:

K. paused and stared at the ground before him. For the moment he was still free, he could continue on his way and vanish through one of the small, dark, wooden doors that faced him at no great distance. It would simply indicate that he had not understood the call, or that he had understood it and did not care. But if he were to turn round he would be caught, for that would amount to an admission that he had understood it very well, that he really was the person addressed, and that he was ready to obey ...

It is a small decision, but one with possibly grave consequences. Should he go through the door or not? The reader, too, will share the dilemma.

Stephen Crane puts his hero through inner conflict like this:

This advance upon Nature was too calm. He had opportunity to reflect. He had time in which to wonder about himself and to attempt to probe his sensations.

Absurd ideas took hold of him. He thought that he did not relish the landscape. It threatened him. A coldness swept over his back, and it is true that his trousers felt to him that they were not fit for his legs at all.

A house standing placidly in distant fields had to him an ominous look. The shadows of the woods were formidable. He was certain that in this vista there lurked fierce-eyed hosts. The swift thought came to him that the generals did not know what they were about. It was all a trap. Suddenly those close forests would bristle with rifle barrels. Ironlike brigades would appear in the rear. They were all going to be sacrificed. The generals were stupid. The enemy would presently swallow the whole command. He glared about him, expecting to see the stealthy approach of his death.

He thought that he must break from the ranks and harangue his comrades. They must not all be killed like pigs; and he was sure it would come to pass unless they were informed of these dangers. The generals were idiots to send them marching into a regular pen. There was but one pair of eyes in the corps. He would step forth to make a speech. Shrill and passionate words came to his lips ... as he looked the youth gripped his outcry at his throat. He saw that even if the men were tottering with fear they would laugh at his warning. They would jeer him, and, if practicable, pelt him with missiles. Admitting that he might be wrong, a frenzied declamation of the kind would turn him into a worm.

Henry is in the throes of an inner conflict that is tearing him apart. His terror is getting the best of him, and soon he will resolve this inner conflict by running away in the face of the enemy.

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky puts his hero in the throes of an intense inner conflict as he contemplates murder:

Raskolnikov made his exit in a perturbed state of mind. As he went downstairs, he stopped from time to time, as if overcome by violent emotion. When he had at length emerged upon the street, he exclaimed to himself: "How loathsome it all is! Can I, can I ever?—no, it's absurd, preposterous! How could such a horrible idea ever enter my head? Could I ever be capable of such infamy? It is odious, ignoble, repulsive! And yet for a whole month—"

The loathing sense of disgust which had begun to oppress him on his way to the old woman's house had now become so intense that he longed to find some way of escape from the torture ...

Dostoevsky is a master of inner conflict. Here, it has occurred to Raskolnikov that the solution to his problems of poverty is to commit a murder, yet his conscience is having a volcanic eruption. Dos-

toevsky's genius lay in his ability to put his characters into an intense inner conflict and keep them there for most of the story, thereby keeping the reader totally transported.

Inner conflict can be thought of as a battle between two "voices" within the character: one of reason, the other of passion— or of two conflicting passions. One, a protagonist, the other, an antagonist (Agnes thought: I'm gonna kill him when he gets home, flatten his damn skull! But what if he's in one of his sweet moods? What if he's singing that love song he wrote for me? No matter! The minute he walks through that door he's a dead man!). These voices are in a rising conflict that usually comes to some kind of climax, where a decision is made that leads to an action. When you think of characters in the throes of inner conflict, think of them as having two competing, equally desirable choices of action, each supported by its own voice. The character then is on the horns of a dilemma, and that's just where you want him or her to be.

To keep your reader transported, dreaming the fictive dream deeply, it's a good idea to heighten suspense, which, happily, is the subject of Chapter Two.

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