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Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else's shoes for a while.

Malorie Blackman

In the last blog, I mused about the purpose of the writer. This week I want to say a few words from a reader’s perspective.

We all know them– those characters that seem so repulsive, the ones that we may love to hate. Sometimes the books become movies, and some talented person will bring the loathsome character to life. Just the other day, I was reminded of Kathy Bates portraying Annie Wilkes in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery. Whew! It must have been quite an experience for him to write the story of Annie Wilkes. Since horror isn’t my favorite genre to read, it is hard for me to imagine conjuring such a figure onto the pages of a book (which is apparently much more graphic than the film).

However, there are some less than savory characters in my forthcoming novel, Dunnigan. Writing them changed my perspective as a reader. I think the writing experience made me a more gracious reader. When I read a character who seems utterly corrupt (or watch someone portray them in a film), I now find myself considering that they have a lifetime of experiences that may not be revealed to me in the story. Instead of saying, “He is rotten to the core”, I find myself thinking, “I wonder what happened to them before the part of their lives I am now seeing?”

If the writer's purpose is to help generate empathy, then the fulfillment of that purpose is advanced when a reader seeks to understand. Even the worst of characters may have encountered a moment when someone hurt them, let them down, did them wrong. If we sprinkle a little empathy into our reading, we not only enrich the story, but I think we are made all the better for it.

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