Saturday, March 5, 2011

Family in Fiction

Several years ago, when I was first here at NMSU, I wrote a story called "Brother." It was published at Mud Luscious. The story was about a man who discovers he absorbed his twin in the womb. This was the first time I realized the power of family in fiction. One of my biggest challenges as a writer is the problem of empathy. I think that my readers should be free and easy with their empathy: that if I show them a human being and I give that human being a name, then that should be more or less enough. Readers who ask me why they should care about a character infuriate me, usually -- of course sometimes the question is valid, but really, why should you care about anyone? Because they're people. Fictional people should be no different even though they don't exist, as I see it. You knew what you were getting into; why be stingy with your love?

This becomes a particular problem for me because I like to extend the empathy of readers, to make them care about things they are not accustomed to caring for. I don't recall if it was Shelley or Coleridge or some other romantic poet who suggested that the main task of writers was to draw into connection, through metaphor, new objects, but I liked the idea, and furthermore I like the idea of drawing people into connection with new people, new objects, new visions of themselves. To empathize unexpectedly is one of my favorite experiences. My novel is about the two atom bombs reincarnated as people. They remain bombs, in a sense, throughout the book. One particularly hostile reader said he could no more identify with bombs than he could a bowie knife -- he asked me, what could a weapon tell him about being human? Well, that's the question isn't it.

What I've learned, though, is that characters can capture empathy by the way they exist in relationship to each other. The bombs in this novel are brothers. This is important to them. They are important to each other. The novel I'm planning to write next is also about brothers. I've had ideas for stories about sisters, also, about mothers, about fathers and sons. In Battlestar Galactica there's a sort of soap opera element to the scripts deriving from the fact of a single family at the story's center. Other people join this family and leave it, become friends with the family and lose those friendships. The family's relationships are a subtext in many of the most dramatic scenes. This can be a little silly sometimes, but it's also useful: it tells us why they care about each other so much.

Fiction is constantly attempting to enlighten us by insisting that deep down we're all essentially the same. This is why so many writers and readers alike are fond of talking about "the human condition," as if there were one human condition. This has always stuck me as both wrong and immoral: wrong in the sense that I believe there is a wider range of human experience than such discourse can contain, and immoral in the sense that all this insisting on our fundamental similarity implies that anyone who is actually different doesn't deserve our love. 

Family is a useful way of dealing with this problem -- a way of helping readers to care about people they might otherwise not care for. We're used to the idea of identifying with our family in spite of difference and alienation. No matter how strange our family seems to us, no matter how totally alien our mothers or fathers or siblings seem to be, we feel strongly -- we are trained to believe -- that we share something with them. It doesn't matter if we can't name the thing. It doesn't matter even if we hate them. We're supposed to care. We're expected to care. We are required to care. And so we do.

And so I am in the habit now of making my characters siblings, wives, and so on. The power of a word like "brother" is the poignancy of it, of being forced to empathize with someone who might be a stranger. It is unreasoning love. Love being my goal, as a writer. My hope. My need.


  1. The only really common element in the human experience is suffering. That's our primary medium of interaction and connection with each other.

  2. Well, I would hope that pleasure is also a common element -- even in truly abject lives, I imagine there are at least fleeting moments of good sensation.

  3. I don't think that's guaranteed. I wish it were otherwise, but suffering is the only thing I can come up with that makes us the same, universally.

    But the good thing is that suffering gives rise to compassion and love, all those elements of our experience that we yearn for and towards.

    I like the essays you post here.