Q: Do you ever feel bad for what you put your characters through?
A: Hmm, not directly, no, but in a certain way, yes. I’ve heard some authors talk about how they ‘have conversations with their characters’ and so feel guilt for what happens to them, but this isn’t something I really relate to.
There’s that debate in cognitive science about whether we understand other people’s mind through simulating in our own heads what it’s like be them, or through forming theories about what they must be thinking. From my very layman’s understanding of the debate, I feel like both of those things happen at different times, and different people seem to be inclined to engage in one mode more than the other. Most of the time that I’m writing, I feel like I’m much more in that ‘theory’ mode, trying to make sure that characters have motivations that make sense and act accordingly. Sometimes this leads to me sort of taking a perspective that isn’t really my own, and with some stories that creates this feeling of ‘wow, that would be a very bleak way of looking at the world’. To that extent, I do ‘feel bad’ for characters, and also there are moments when I get these sorts of flashes of empathy for the characters, where I can almost feel in my body what the emotions they’re experiencing would be like (which I think of as being in ‘simulation mode’). I think those moments have resulted in some of my favourite bits of writing, and in that way, I sometimes ‘feel bad’ in the sense that I briefly share in the misery/rage/despair I’m depicting, but not in not in the sense that I feel any responsibility for making them experience it.
I have a friend who’s a TV writer, and he used to get hate mail all the time from fans for putting the characters through bad things. Complaints about gratuitous suffering would be something (and learning where the line is can be tricky), but they were really written as if he’d actually done that stuff to real people, and that seems pathological to me. Not to mention, suffering and struggle are indispensable to fiction and maybe to real life as well, but that’s a bigger debate, and I’ve rambled enough.
Will Gwaun’s story “Mission and Submission”
in Metaphorosis Friday, 11 March 2022.
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