Lucinda Elliot

What Makes a Reader Empathise with a Lead Character is Often an Indefinable Combination of Things

Re-reading my favourite novel by Margaret Atwood, ‘Bodily Harm’, made me wonder, as I have done before, whether or not you have to identify strongly with the lead character to be really drawn in by a novel.
I like the main character, Renny Wilford, well enough – I like her courage, and her detached, cool humour. She is not an enthusiast (to use a wonderful eighteenth century term) about anything, but that is part of her appeal. Even in her relationship with her live in lover, Jake – who in fact stops either loving her or living with her as the back story progresses – there is this lack of intense commitment.
It is, of course, part of the interest of the plot that Renny stops being detached. Her terrible experiences in a gaol on a tiny Caribbean island as a suspected revolutionary (of all ironical charges) and the horrors she has seen as that hopeless revolutionary uprising is aborted, have changed her. Now such issues as the sort of jewellery it is chic to wear, or how to furnish your home on a budget economy no longer absorb her. Now she will write about what she has seen.
Still, like this lead character as I did, I didn’t strongly identify with her. I didn’t feel for her as I did for various other characters going through dramas far removed from my own experiences. Perhaps this was the author’s intention, that Renny, being detached herself, does not inspire strong identification in the reader?
For instance, I really felt for the female lead of Patrick Hamilton’s ‘The Slaves of Solitude’, the honourable Miss Roach, persecuted by a pair of closet Nazis in an English boarding house in the middle of World War II. I empathized  with Amelia, besotted wife of the insensitive George Osborn in ‘Vanity Fair’, for all  her sillness. Now I am re-reading ‘Ariadne’ by June Rachuy Brindle, and as before, I find myself wholly identified with the last matriarchal Queen of Ancient Crete in her struggle against the invasion of the patriarchs.
That last might be said to be wholly unsurprising – I am, after all, attracted by the matriarchal thesis and have never considered that it has been sufficiently disapproved, even if I have sadly never been a matriarchal queen. My sympathy with Miss Roach’s mental torture in the boarding house similarly may well come from my own experience of encounters with malevolent people with fascist sympathies, and foolish as Amelia may be, I did in fact elope myself as a teenager with my other half…
That must be a part of it. I don’t consider that this has anything to do with the vividness of the portrayal of the main character. Margaret Atwood’s portrayal of character is always superb, and Renny is more clearly drawn than many with whom I have identified far more intensely.
I tend to think that unfortunately for writers, it is largely a matter of chance whether or not a reader can strongly identify with a main, or indded, any character.
A writer can do his/her best to make a character sympathetic and interesting. The writer can give that character strong motivations, sympathetic weaknesses combined with admirable strengths, trying circumstances, not too much of a surfeit of admiration, etc – objectively,  according to the ‘How To’ writing books, that should result in a highly appealing character.
Still, finally, whether or no sh/e evokes empathy ino a reader depends on a whole lot of factors out of a writer’s control.
These include the reader’s frame of mind at the time of reading, his or her past experiences, his or her goals, attitudes, expectations, sense of humour, prejudices of all sorts, and a myriad of other factors; all these will define how s/he relates to that painstackingly defined lead character.
That is at once both an encouraging and discouraging thought.
Still, if you are like me, you don’t necessarily have to identify strongly with the lead character – or in fact, any of them – to enjoy a well written and skillfully executed story.
And while what constitutes a well crafted and skillfully executed story is also partly a matter of taste, perhaps it is less so than is the question of finding deep empathy with characters.

2 Responses

  1. It helps a great deal if it is a first person narrative. If handled properly, the reader is either in there with the narrator or outside, angrily throwing missiles. Either way, reader involvement is guaranteed.

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