The Nighttime Novelist...accomplishes more in about 240 pages than a dozen other "how to write" or "craft your novel" books have ever done.

--Helen Gallagher/Blogcritics
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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ira Glass: Sympathy's Role in Storytelling

I know you already listen to This American Life--so there's no need to introduce it here--but you might've missed this recent interview on Slate.com with the show's producer/host Ira Glass. (I almost missed it, too; thank you to Jessica for sending it on.)

The interview covers a whole, whole lot of ground--the creative process, Roland Barthes, "wrongness" as a source of conflict, psychotherapy and storytelling, and so on--but the thing that really jumped out at me, and the thing This American Life does so well, comes early in the interview, with Glass talking about sympathy as a requirement for engaging with a character (and, thus, a story as a whole).

Of course, that your character must be sympathetic is well-known, perhaps overused advice...almost but not quite up there with the terrible two of Write What You Know and Show Don't Tell, both of which can get a writer into real trouble if taken too literally. And yet as a teacher and editor I've seen more than my share of stories in which the protagonist is completely unsympathetic and unrelatable...most often because of how bad the character is (psychopath, sociopath, sadist, Satan, whatever), but the same problem exists with characters who are far too good, when they're the embodiment of virtue and heroism and courage. I'm neither end of the spectrum--most days it's a sliding scale--and when I encounter a character like that in a story, I have no way to relate to him, and thus little interest or investment in what happens.

A sympathetic character doesn't mean that what the character is going through is anything we've ever gone through personally, or ever would, not does it mean we condone, necessarily, the character's actions or motives. But it does mean that we're able to see something of ourselves in the character's predicament, and it's this level of sympathy that allows us to feel something about, and care something about, what a character goes through, care about the story and its outcome. Even if that story is set in a world or time or situation or culture that looks nothing like our own.

Glass puts it this way:


Well, if the story works, you become the character, right? You agree with their early point of view, and then when it gets shattered, you are shattered with it. So in the storytelling, you want to manipulate the evidence and the feelings so that the audience is right there agreeing with the person who's about to be proven wrong. When that happens, if it's done right, you as the audience get flipped upside down.

"Agree with" is maybe a bit strong--you can feel sympathetic toward some aspect of a character's plight without agreeing with it, lucky for the reader who spends any time with Nabokov--but the basic point is well made: that when we feel some measure of sympathy toward a charcater, and the character fails or makes a wrong turn, the loss that the character experiences crushes us, too.

Thankfully, the opposite outcome is just as true...when a character we feel sympathetic toward and have real hope for triumphs, we feel relief, elation, even an emotional or spiritual lift as if the risk and the reward were just as much ours.

For proof, take a listen here to the "Gamester of Ireland is Fine" segment (the first story, at 4:48) from the "Quiz Show" episode of This American Life...a story which won a prize at the Third Coast International Audio Festival. (The rest of the episode is excellent, too, but it's this segment that's really stayed with me.)

Keep a hanky nearby.

PS: My usual audio player is acting up tonight. Pardon the low-tech solution.
PPS: I have given up trying to embed the sucker.

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