I’ve been thinking a lot lately about empathy, readers, and when it happens and when it doesn’t. Not least, I’d imagine, because I finally finished my novel, and despite three rounds of edits, I’m still questioning whether the book I think I wanted to write is the one that came across, and whether the book that stands is compelling for people who aren’t me.
I like to have a main character that I can identify with. I’m drawn to books with female protagonists, although I won’t discount books told from a boy’s point of view; I loved the Harry Potter series because of Harry, and despite the near absence of a female presence in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, I love Tolkien. But I think that overall, it would be safe to say that people like reading about characters who are like them. And in the case of people who like speculative fiction, people like reading about characters who are like them and do amazing things.
The first fantasy book I remember reading is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And I have to admit, I thought it was a little weak that Susan had a bow and Lucy had a glorified healing potion, and the boys got the awesome swords. But Susan and Lucy were still awesome; they went after Aslan, they brought him back, and they were pretty fierce, too. After that I discovered Robin McKinley, and I devoured The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, and I fell in love with fantasy because here were women and they were doing things that I wanted to be able to do. I was such a tomboy when I was little. I remember being at my grandmother’s house on a Sunday afternoon when my male cousins went outside to shoot guns at tin cans set up on the back of a fence. I tried to follow them out the door, because that sounded kind of fun, but my grandmother wouldn’t let me because she said it wasn’t proper behavior for a girl.
Books didn’t have those limitations. Or at least, the ones I was interested in reading didn’t.
My favorite high school English teacher told us that the older we got, the more we’d drift away from fiction toward nonfiction books. I’m almost ten years out of high school now, and that doesn’t make me an authority on anything, but I’m not sure that’s ever going to be the case with me. I still prefer fantasy, although my tastes have maybe gotten a little darker. And I still prefer characters I can relate to. Characters I can empathize with.
But one of the better books I’ve read recently doesn’t come packaged that way. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians features a male protagonist who was at times so annoying I wanted to shake him. The guy was genius-level smart, had a supportive, upper-middle-class family, and to top it off got invited to a secret magical college, the elite of the elite, and he still couldn’t stop feeling sorry for himself. By all rights I should have hated the guy, but the world was too interesting and I couldn’t put the book down. Quentin was annoying and for a long while, I didn’t feel very sorry for him, but the book worked.
On the other hand, I’m now attempting to read a new release by one of my favorite authors. For the second time. I got this book back in July, started it, got to page 58 and was so fed up I put it back on the shelf. I should like this protagonist. Female? Check. Interesting magical world? Check. Is she likable? Well, sure–she has some really interesting hobbies; she’s not pretentious or annoying. But that book was so frustrating the first time through. This is a fantasy world unlike any I’ve ever read, and the author has yet to explain to me what is going on. I restarted the book again last night; I’m on page 127 out of 263. Halfway through I really don’t know what our conflict is. I don’t know what happened to the last person to hold the protagonist’s job, although there have been vague hints. I don’t know why the world works the way it does. I didn’t even know there was a king until a few pages ago. I don’t know what the world looks like, or if this political system is in place everywhere, or, or, or. . .
I should be able to empathize with this protagonist. Instead I want to shake the book, maybe to see if some answers will fall out. I had to really hold back on my expectations this time around. I had to keep reminding myself that nothing would make sense, and that if my questions were answered it wouldn’t be for a very long time. And I’ve been able to ignore the niggling questions so far, and enjoy the flow of the book. I’m just a little bit taken aback at how much I should be able to like this character, and how much, by contrast, the book is holding me at arm’s length. It’s working hard to keep me in the dark. I’m not reading this book because I like the main character; I’m reading it for the fleeting moments when sunshine peeks through the clouds, because I love this author (mostly), and now it’s a personal challenge. Would I give this much time to a new author?
No. And I don’t expect anybody to give this much time to me, if I turned out an arm’s-length character.