More on Pity and Fear in Fiction

Previously posted on my old blog 50 shimmering pages. You might also enjoy “The Intersection of Pity & Fear: A Look at Endings in Short Fiction.”

October 6, 2013

As a boy I used to go to the Chamber of Horrors at the annual fair, to look at the wax figures of Emperors and Kings, of heroes and murderers of the day. The dead now had that same unreality, which shocks without arousing pity.” ~ Ernst Toller

My writing instructor, author David Payne, gave me lots of good advice at Queens. One thing he told me was never to take crack shots at my characters. In my efforts to write what I thought was humor, I teetered on constructing, too often, a condescending narrative voice.

I understand fear; perhaps we all do post 9/11 because it looms so large in our collective psyches. Fear is exhilerating, though, and attractive to me as a conduit for telling stories. It has shock value. It makes headlines. We like to scare ourselves, we need to. Fear reminds us we’re only flesh and blood, that the trappings of our lives are illusory, that the rug may be swept out from under us at any moment, maybe right now.

But fear without pity is the stuff of snuff flicks. More than we can gaze upon. Abject terror without meaning is unreal, and we’re not interested in unreality. We don’t know how to engage with it.

It is pity that gives meaning to suffering and misfortune. Pity silences us, shames us, snatches away our breath. But only for the moment it takes us to connect. Something is transferred to us when we feel pity. We become the suffering, the underdog, the less fortunate. We take hold of the other end of the stick, or rather it takes hold of us.

So back to Aristotle’s observations about the nature of tragedy and the cathartic process. (See “The Intersection of Pity & Fear: A Look at Endings in Fiction.”) Tragedy succeeds, he says, when we arouse pity and fear in such a way that it creates a cathartic experience for those looking on.

We want more than spectacle. We want catharsis, spiritual cleansing, a brush with mystery. This is what satisfies.

Pity can be tricky, though, for too heavy a hand and what you have for your character is contempt, as I did as a young graduate student. Why else do we ourselves loathe the idea of being pitied? Our characters don’t want to be pitied any more than we do. Our aim is not pity exactly; instead, it is the arousal of tender feelings that will draw readers near.

How to arouse pity, then, without condescension?

Short stories don’t allow much room for full-blown tragedy and human suffering. In the length of an average short story, suffering can take on the qualities of abstraction. It’s simply too big.

Two smaller, more subtle things we can do:

First, give our characters something to regret, an “if only…” moment. In Charles Baxter’s story “Gryphon,” if only Miss Ferenczi hadn’t brought out those tarot cards. If only she had not said that Wayne would soon die. Even if your character does not regret her actions, show us someone else who does regret on her behalf.

Another thing we can do: exact a measure of cruelty. Last night, I read Steven Rinehart’s story “The Order of the Arrow,” which begins this way:

Heitman, the homosexual, the insane, is my tentmate. Again.”

~ from “The Order of the Arrow” by Steven Rinehart

Immediately we feel a measure of pity for the narrator who must suffer at the hands of Heitman, the insane. And we learn soon enough that Heitman is indeed a very troubled kid. He howls and refers to the narrator as his “hunch buddy.” Consequently, the narrator is viewed by the other scouts as Heitman’s girlfriend. I can think of few other cruelties doled out upon a young boy worse than this. But we later pity Heitman as well. He’s scary, there’s no question. But he is also very likely insane,  as the narrator suggests, a vulnerability that makes him the object of scorn and cruelty at the hands of an unknown other, presumably his father. Heitman’s back is scarred with stripes.

We are taught as children not to laugh and jeer and point at hairlips, missing digits, glass eyes, mental retardation. But that’s exactly what we must do as fiction writers. Cruelty is a perversion of our fantasies. We want to stare at the hairlip. We want to feel the nub of the missing limb. We want to mock the infirmed, God help us. But it is shameful to do such things in the waking world of our daily lives. It is only permissable in our dreams, and in our fiction.

Giving our characters regrets, exacting small cruelties… these are the things that create in onlookers the impulse to draw near or to stare in spite of ourselves, to flinch and pull slightly away even as we rubberneck, as it were. To look on in anguish, perhaps even horror, and then breathe a sigh of relief. But for the grace of God… Catharsis. Release and satisfaction. The feeling of having seen something we shouldn’t have seen. And then gratitude for having seen it.

Try this:

1. Give your characters something to regret. “If only…” What are the “if only” opportunities in the story you are currently working on?

2. Exact a measure of cruelty on (or by) a character in your story.

3. Examine stories that you love to see how many actions are regretted, how many acts of cruelty are enacted.

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