The thing about getting to know someone this intimately is that it can foster a kind of radical empathy. When someone's behaviors are explained to you in an in-depth, nuanced way, it becomes easy to understand that person and empathize with them - even if you don't personally like them or agree with them.
For YA writers, to write a deeply flawed (read: real) character in an effective way is to challenge and help your reader to employ radical empathy. This is important because radical empathy isn't something we get to feel that often in real life. (If we do employ it often, based on the limited information we have about strangers, then we're probably the Nicest Human Being ever, and have reached a level of coolness that many of us can only strive for.)
But at its core, radical empathy represents a key part of what makes us us, of what makes interacting with others and life in general a worthwhile venture. It's what leads people to risk their lives to save others in a natural disaster. It's what forms the connection between best friends who would do anything for each other. It's possibly what redeems the human race, even when we seem to be doing everything wrong (hello, racism, sexism, etc). Reading is always an exercise in imagination, but reading a well-executed flawed character, who you come to understand and empathize with, is like an exercise in a higher level of human awesomeness.
If you're a YA writer, and especially if you're writing in the first person, you are the gatekeeper to this pretty amazing, not-normal experience. So knowing the value of radical empathy, how can you promote it in your book?
Perfect vs. Likeable vs. Empathizable Characters
We've all heard before that a perfect character is a boring one; every character must have some flaws in order to be interesting. But what does that really mean? It's easy enough to say your character is clumsy, sarcastic, and sometimes a little hotheaded, for instance, and then be done with it.
|© Mimmo Domenico Russo|
One way to do this is to allow your character to make mistakes - big ones, with consequences, that they had full agency in making. It's easy when writing a book to just throw a lot of outside obstacles at your protagonist and then have the protagonist deal with those obstacles. But sometimes, we are all the creators of our own suffering. Perhaps the key to writing a great empathizable Protagonist Mistake is to fully illustrate, pre-event, why the protagonist thinks he or she is acting correctly. Allow them to fully reason through their decision using their own established knowledge and wisdom. Nobody thinks they're making a mistake at the exact moment they make one, so get the reader on board and rooting for the character's decision. Then comes the fallout (aahh!).
Another way is to incorporate contradictions into your character, especially when it comes to their values. Ask: what does your character value? How could these ideals come in conflict with their actions, or their other values? To illustrate this, perhaps in one scene your character, who values kindness, sees someone being bullied but doesn't do anything. What has led to their moment of inaction? Is it that they want to be socially accepted more than they want to be kind? That might sound terrible on paper, but most of us have been in a similar position before. Fear, anger, confusion, and more can get in the way of our somewhat simple higher ideals and make us into hella complicated, flawed creatures. AKA real people.
One thing to keep in mind is, not every character is going to likable when you allow your writing to really delve into their personhood like this. But we're not going for likable here; we're going for real. Likable can mean that your character is nice, or funny, or passionate, but likability doesn't require realness. And realness is what's going to give your reader the opportunity to employ - with fantastic results for themselves as well as humanity - radical empathy.
This has been a long post, but that's all for now, folks! What are some other ways to make a character realistically, beautifully flawed that you can think of? What are your thoughts on radical empathy? What deeply flawed character have you really empathized with in the past?