Character as a Vehicle for Empathy

In order to talk about character, we have to talk about why we read in the first place. It’s a good question. Why after some 2000 years are we still reading Homer? Who cares about Vergil and Ovid? Why go to the library to check out La Divina Comedia? Why study Shakespeare? They’re all long dead, but surely reputation and the bidding of schoolmarms and ancient professors has something to do with it. But what about more recent shit, like Tolstoy or Turgenev, Woolf or Wilder, Burroghs or Beckett, Morrison or McCarthy, Egan or Eggers? Most books, nowadays, have a Wikipedia page or an in-depth chapter-by-chapter synopsis on Sparknotes. If you want to know what happens, you’re only one google search away. And better yet, why do I keep re-reading Dubliners when I have shelves of unread novels in my bedroom? 

I can tell you it’s not because we need to know what happens next.


A few years ago, I was having coffee with Bob Mooney, my thesis advisor and writing mentor. Bob is the kind of guy, who, even when you’re with him, seems somewhere else, and his heavy grey face and disheveled hair made that distractedness obvious from across the street. But Bob had learned from masters like John Gardner and had Sunday dinners with the people I had studied in college. (Once he told me he had to hang up because Jack Barth was coming over. Only after did I realize he was referring to John–fucking Sot-Weed Factor–Barth.) 

We bullshited for a while, little things about who had read my manuscript and what my writing process was like. It didn’t take long for him to get to what he had probably been thinking about since we agreed to meet. He wanted to know why my narrator had felt so bad for such a scumbag character.

I told him, “I always write about people I hate.”


Until my sophomore year of college, I had never heard of Alex Jones. My boss at UPS thought he was the Second Coming. She said that he revealed the truth behind 9/11; I thought the truth had already been exposed in over 1000 pages by the 9/11 Commission. (I’m sorry, but I have to take a moment to comment on the stupidity of 9/11 Truthers. Really, what kind of cover-up could be that fucking massive? Who says, yeah, a bunch of people wrote a detailed report that’s pretty Goddamn authorative just to keep the sheep in the dark?) Needless to say, I went home and watched some of his documentaries out of curiosity, and after an hour of rambling, I knew he was crazy. But even though I thought he was manipulative and dangerous, I strangely felt bad for him too. I knew he believed every word he spoke, even if his evidence was filmsy and his points were illogical. He was passionate, whole-heartedly invested in his cause, and that was something I understood. 

I knew I wanted to be a writer back in high school when I was skipping pep rallies to write poetry and staying up late to watch movies and play video games but convinced I was going to be a physicist. It was only after I failed physics freshman year that I had the courage to admit it. So I felt bad for Alex Jones because I imagined what it would be like if everything I stood for turned out to be wrong. And the worst part: he’d never have a chance to see outside himself to know how deluded he is.

That’s what fiction is for: It’s an opportunity to doubt, to dream, to love, to feel through the eyes of another. The scholars might say it gives us insight into the human condition. I call it empathy. But how do you establish empathy through character?


Joyce is a figure both revered and reviled in the literary world, and if you’ve had a chance to read him, it’s impossible not to form an opinion one way or the other. I fall into the former camp. 

His character and alter-ego, Stephen Dedalus, is probably his most well-known creation and serves as a model we should all aspire to. Stephen’s essence, his soul, is his ambition, his desire to become an artist–something he takes very seriously. He wants to be a great Irish poet, and it informs every aspect of his life. But just like Luke Skywalker or Odysessus, there are roadblocks that make his journey difficult. Stephen is torn between his ambition and his family, his country, and Catholicism. Of course, by the novel’s end (SPOILER!), he does what he needs to, but even if we didn’t take the time to read A Portait of the Artist as a Young Man, we would could see it in his name alone.

He is Stephen after St. Stephen, the first martyr who was stoned to death for blasphemy. This is, by no means, a mistake or happy accident. It suggests Stephen Dedalus’s own “martyrdom” and “blasphemy”: his sacrifice of his family, his suffering at the hands of the Church and Irish and English society, the “death” of his religious life, and his radical views on art and sexuality. His last name, Dedalus, is an obvious reference to the Greek mythological figure Daedalus, an innovator, a mature, skilled craftsman, an artist of the highest ambition. Stephen’s very name reflects who he is and tells his story. His growth as a character is established in two words.    

Of course, this is shown through his choices as well. Even though Stephen is a pussy who “wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight” (that might be Jay-Z and not Joyce), when it comes to art, he does not back down. In chapter two, Heron asks Stephen who is the greatest poet, and Stephen replies, “Tennyson a poet! Why he’s only a rhymester…. Byron [is the greatest].” Stephen is so committed to his cause, he can’t even keep his mouth shut. He doesn’t care that everyone else thinks that Byron is “only a poet for uneducated people,” that he was “a heretic and immoral too.” He’s an artist, and he knows it. It’s only by the novel’s end that he gathers the courage to admit it to himself: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” His focus is singular and every moment in the novel demonstrates his movement towards the truth of who he is and his acceptance.


A lot of people advise young writers to start with a list of attributes: name, age, height, occupation, what they ate for breakfast. If that kind of stuff can tell you who and what a person is, then the Census Bureau should be writing better stories than all of us. These things can’t be forced on a character: They are chosen by them. 

Philosophers like Aristotle believed that essence precedes existence, that the soul exists long before the physical body. Even though I agree with Sartre, that, I think, is where you need to start when writing characters: What kind of man or woman are they? Most people think of themselves as the hero of their own story. They are always trying to do the right thing. Sure, there are limits and compromises, but how far they’ll go and by what means is determined by the character’s soul, the heart of who they are. The writer’s job is to put them into situations which test it. 

A character’s essence must infect every part of their being, from head to toe. It may evolve and change and refine itself through struggle, but the core remains and determines their every choice, every success and every mistake. That’s what allows us to empathize with Nathan Zuckerman or Dr. Manhattan, not backstory and exposition and interior dialogue. Nobody cares where you’re from or what happened to you when you twelve years old. That’s all window dressing. It’s when those little details tell a story of your choices, when they serve as evidence of who you are: That’s what makes the reader turn the page.        

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