On Empathy – A Post about Stephen King and Writing Well

            I read Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and Joe Hill’s Horns this month. Both books are written by powerfully strong horror writers and novelists who know how to spin a yarn. (It’s also interesting to observe that these two writers happen to be father and son.) As I read the two books, I found myself pondering the likeability of the narrators of both of these first-person books. One of the books features an obviously positive and sympathetic narrator: the other book features the opposite. One book worked for me, and one book simply did not. So I’d like to examine the importance of your protagonist’s likeability in a first person narrative.

One writer – Stephen – gives us a narrator we feel positively connected to, and seems to have good motivations and ambitions. We like the protagonist “Jake Epping” from the outset of the novel, because he shows kindness to his students, to his ex-wife, and to his colleagues. He is trying hard to be a positive force in the universe – and tells us as much, almost verbatim, in the first chapter. Of course, since we already know (from the book jacket), that this guy is going to try to save JFK from assassination, it’s a comfort from the outset to believe that our potential past as a nation is in the hands of a “good guy.”[1] In contrast to this obvious likeability in 11-22-63, the narrator of Horns starts the book by describing every other character negatively and dismissively, and acts nearly psychopathic in his disregard for others feelings. He lets us know early on that he is accused of a past murder, and it is easy to believe in the first 10 chapters, that Ignatius “Ig” Perrish, Joe Hill’s narrator, would be quite capable of murder.[2] Ig starts the novel as a disreputable, dissolute shitbag, and then he is cursed by a supernatural intervention to act in an even more disgusting, despicable and dislikeable way. His behavior is abhorrent.

The lesson I took away from reading these two books back to back is that a writer should not scare one’s readers away by portraying your protagonist in a very negative way. After all, guess which book I finished?  I’d recommend King’s 11-22-63 to friends, but I’d never recommend Horns to anyone, because of the protagonist.

In fact, this aspect of novel-building may be Stephen King’s masterstroke in all his fiction. King has never written a first person story that features a character I failed to identify with and find compelling. He writes stories about “good intentioned people” (who doesn’t like them?), “nice people” (like you and me), average loving wife and mother,” (King uses these words precisely to describe his protagonist in Lisey’s Story), and even adds a dose of Ray Bradbury-esque “nostalgic people” (small towns are his specialty, just like Bradbury). These characters just happen to get caught up in other-worldly events, and take their better instincts with them when they battle urges towards inner (or outer) darkness. Every King book firmly establishes an everyman or everywoman character (someone who doesn’t think they are above the world, and tries hard to be morally good, as they see it), and then brings them into confrontation with other forces: Joe the good-intentioned alcoholic teacher struggles with ancient aliens (Tommyknockers), everyday writer who loves his family struggles with ghostly visitations (The Shining), or in book after book, average morally upright citizens receive calls from the dead, and find a way to integrate the supernatural into their world, and become world-saving heroes who confront and defeat demons despite their “average likeability” (Pet Semetary / The Stand / Dark Tower, etc., etc.). Most readers find King’s characters to be every-man characters who strive for better behavior, rather than starting at the lower end of the spectrum, like the characters found in other writers – like that of fiction by horror master Clive Barker.

Clive Barker starts with characters who are struggling forward as well – yet his characters are almost never striving for goodness and don’t present themselves as likeable. Instead, they present themselves as greedy ambitious entities who want to get some sort of riches, some sort of insight, or some sort of greater power over the world. Most of the time, they are not deluded in the possible consequences of their actions, but instead are fully willing to dive in, regardless of the consequences. As in Barker’s masterpiece The Great And Secret Show, his characters are willing to destroy the world – any world – if it means a better chance for their own selfish hearts. They start bad, and get worse. For this reason, and perhaps for no other, Barker has never enjoyed the kind of universal acceptance and adulation that King has enjoyed, although in some regards Barker is a more precise writer and a larger visionary.

King reveals this secret to his success very clear in his book On Writing, where he writes that “nobody is the ‘bad-guy’.” King goes on to explain that:

The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see. It's also important to remember that no one is 'the bad guy'… in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby. If you can bring this attitude into your fiction, you may not find it easier to create brilliant characters, but it will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction.

Yet King is not saying to make every character into a “good guy.” Instead, he is making the crucial distinction that every character sees themselves as the good guy. It is important to point out that creating a “sympathetic” character does not mean to make your character into some sort of a namby-pamby lily-gloved perfect persona. Human beings are complex, human beings are flawed, and human beings are constantly screwing up the world. We break things. We wallow in entropy and destruction of other people – by words, deeds or simply in our own emotions. The key difference between creating a character who has all these very human characteristics, and yet is sympathetic, is creating moments for the reader to like them, despite their destructive (or self-destructive) attributes.  It is showing the reader facets of the character they should like or find intriguing – or that the writer wants the readers to sympathize with.[3]

The difference between creating a fully-fleshed “human” character with many flaws who is dislikeable and a fully-fleshed human character who is sympathetic is a matter of degrees, and the lens through which you show your audience your protagonist. In fact, it’s become almost standard to have an “anti-hero” (or negative-acting) protagonist who is still quite sympathetic. This is because these “anti-heros” always have elements that interest you and draw you towards sympathy with the protagonist. To cite one example, in John Updike’s classic Rabbit books, the protagonist begins by leaving his wife, sleeping around, and acting like a cad – and yet there is something in the man-child perspective of Rabbit Angstrom that simply intrigues, and something open to the world that keeps you reading the Rabbit books. You are rooting for Rabbit, even while he’s breaking social mores right and left.

A more recent example of the same anti-hero protagonist is Jonathon Stroud’s Bartimus fantasy novels. Part of the reason Stroud’s technique is intriguing is that instead of adding the distance Updike achieves with an omniscient point of view, Stroud actually puts us inside the head of a destructive demon – a literal demon – who shares his blood-lust with us in a very close first person perspective. “Bartimus” as the narrator is an enslaved demon who hungers for the destruction of his 14 year old slave-master, and for the destruction of the world. Yet despite these drawbacks, Bartimus as narrator is intriguing, instructive, sardonic and hilarious. Stroud also undertakes a unique strategy to draw readers into Bartimus’s perspective, rather than repelling us from reading through his eyes.

For example, he justifies and explains things that “normal” human beings wouldn’t find it necessary to justify – for example he asks rhetorical questions like “When freed from my chains, why did I not immediately decapitate the 14 year old magician and sup from his life-blood? Well, obviously, that’s what one would do. And there he was, a willing sacrifice to my natural greed. But I found that it was a little complicated in the moment. In fact, you might be surprised to know that I let him live. He’s still alive today, curse his immortal soul.”  In fact, almost every time Bartimus is freed from his chains, he finds some excuse for preserving the lives of those he works for, and for not destroying the world. He is very elaborate at finding justifications for being “good.” This is a uniquely sympathetic move and occasionally makes readers laugh out loud at his contortions as he explains why he’s not acting according to “his natural evil nature.”

This act of internal “justification” is in stark contrast to many first person anti-hero narrators, who are constantly justifying their “evil” actions to the reader, in a vain attempt to get the reader on their side. In this light, I think of my work in the novel Carpenter, in which my deluded narrator justifies his treatment of his child and his betrayal of his child’s Christ-figure mentor. In many regards, by having him try to justify these actions, I made him less of a likeable and reliable narrator. If I just allowed him to assume his actions were good, and justify any action that was “good” in the reader’s eyes, I’d actually turn attention towards the more “good” actions. This is the hat-trick that Stroud manages with Bartimus – by having Bartimus explain to us why his “good” actions are a necessary “evil,” he actually wins us onto the side of this destructive demon. It’s an interesting ploy, and one that works remarkably well to engage us in the narrative, and sympathize with the narrator.

King goes the more traditional route in his novel 11-22-63, where the main character starts as a very sympathetic and positively motivated “everyday hero” guy, and just becomes more sympathetic as the novel progresses and he confronts various difficulties. There was never a moment in 11-22-63 in which I doubted the narrator’s good intentions, likeability, appeal to reason, or desire to save the world. In fact, his very likeability and his desire to connect with people and save the world were his Achille’s heels in a topsy-turvy time-travel scenario in which he was not supposed to engage with people, save lives (other than Kennedy’s) or connect in any meaningful way with the past history he encountered. As I mentioned previously, it would have made a more intriguing read if the narrator had more rough edges – or mixed motivations – in his story.  Yet the overall sympathetic nature of the protagonist in 11-22-63 kept me reading.

In the end, what I reflected on as I read 11-22-63 is that although it is absolutely necessary to see characters grow and change over time, writers must start stories in a manner that allows access and provides some avenue to “likeability” to your main character.  This is especially true in first person point-of-view. As readers, we need to feel sympathy – even affection – for the characters who are guiding us down the path of the narrative. Without that sympathy and affection, the suspension of disbelief is more difficult, and the path we travel more distracting to us. To stretch the metaphor, if we “trust” the narrator as our guide on the trail, then the path becomes interesting, even if it is full of briars and dark patches and even places where the narrator seems to be going the wrong way.

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[1] One wonders if it might have been kind of interesting – and unusual – to set up this kind of a “hero” situation, and then have the main character begin the novel as a really negative figure – perhaps even a racist Republican demagogue – who falls into the story sideways, and ends up saving the president and changing himself as he tries to take this action of redemption. I kept expecting the narrator to turn into Jack Ruby, for example, as in the wonderful time-travel story “12 Monkeys” in which the narrator (as a child) watches himself die as a deluded terrorist (as an old man). What a great twist that would have been – and a much harder book to write. As Stephen King says of himself, he’s not a “great writer,” but he is a “pretty good storyteller.”

[2] Of course, Joe Hill is engaging in a bit of mis-direction, by pushing us to see “Ig” in such a negative light in the opening chapter or two, because he wants us to think that Ig would be capable of murder. However, instead of continuing this “negative” characterization of Ig for interminable chapters, Joe Hill might have been better served by having our antipathy for Ig turn to likeability and even affection, prior to his curse coming  on.

[3] To cite a contrary example, I really dislike the narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and it’s not because of his actions. It is because of how unsympathetic the main character is. I simply don’t care at all about his situation or his activities, because there is not one shred of sympathy in his world. As the Library Journal points out: “The recital of the brutalization is made even more horrible by the first-person narrator’s delivery: flat, matter-of-fact, as impersonal as a car parts catalog.”

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