I Have Great Empathy for Apathetic Characters

MOTHER died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. – THE STRANGER, Albert Camus

I read it again. I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure what I had just read. Up until that point I was told and instructed that all narrators had to be trustworthy. We had to care for them at the onset of the story. If you don’t care for them, if you don’t trust them, the readers will revolt and close the covers of the book, never knowing what they wanted and what has changed inside of them. I had been beaten with Dickens and Twain and Shakespeare and Steinbeck and Poe and Miller and Frost and Whitman and White and Hemingway and, so help me God, King. You can trust their protagonists. You can grow with them. You can laugh with them. You can cry with them. You can dream with them. You can die with them.

I was a Freshman in high school. I was in Honors English and we were discussing literature. Mr. Hawkinson asked us to bring a book from home and that would be the one that for the next couple of weeks that we would read and then produce a book report. I went home and looked at my parents limited library. It was filled with an incomplete, white bound, printed Google. When I was in high school, we called it an encyclopedia. There were sporadically thrown books thrown amongst the printed Google. There were the aforementioned authors and then a new author I hadn’t heard. Truth be told I selected the book because of the size. It was small. It was 123 pages. I was 15 and had my best Kurt Cobain impression going those days, sans the addiction to heroin and malevolent women.

I brought it school with me the next day and when Mr. Hawkinson came by my desk in the corner (I was always in the corner) he asked me what book I brought from home. I reached into my backpack and produced the thin, paperback copy. He adjusted the thick, gold frames that sat on his nose. He had a glorious white beard that faded into a cul-de-sac atop his head. He raised his eyebrow and looked back at my disinterested, grungy, dirty self.

“Do you think you can handle this?” he asked me. My teenage angst mind furrowed its brow and said, ‘duh!’

“Um, yeah. Sure, Mr. Hawkinson,” my newly pubescent voice squeaked out.

“It’s some heavy shit,” he replied. Holy crap! My teacher just swore!

“I, uh, I will be good with it,” I said.

So, I went home that night. I sat down and read the first line. And then I read it again. What was I reading? I quickly read Part One. I was in. I was in, because this was the first character that I had read, that I had felt wasn’t a character that wasn’t already written. To be fair to the authors above, they have unique characters, but Mersault was a life changing character in the head of a developing 15 year-old, creative. He couldn’t be trusted, he was indifferent to everything, and he didn’t care that he died. He wasn’t doing anything to live. His choices and wants weren’t advancing him to a goal. They were advancing him to nothingness. In Mersault’s eye’s, he was choosing nothingness over afterlife.

Mr. Hawkinson was right. That was heavy shit. And it has developed the way I think about character development in my own characters because I believe it is a realistic character trait. Since I read THE STRANGER for the first time, every fictional piece I have every crafted has had a piece of Mersault’s soul and apathy attached to it. I have great empathy for apathetic characters. In my own pieces, it is a line that I like to tow with my readers. I don’t want my protagonists to be so disinterested that the book cover gets slammed, but find that balance, that level of interest in the psychosis that all of we humans share – from time to time.

“Thus, I always began by assuming the worst; my appeal was dismissed. That meant, of course, I was to die. Sooner than others, obviously. ‘But,’ I reminded myself, ‘it’s common knowledge that life isn’t worth living, anyhow.’ And, on a wide view, I could see that it makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or threescore and ten– since, in either case, other men will continue living, the world will go on as before. Also, whether I died now or forty years hence, this business of dying had to be got through, inevitably.”   THE STRANGER – Albert Camus

Please to enjoy.


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