Often, I love the beginning of a book, but find the ending to be a rude disappointment. I close the cover feeling cheated and angry and I wonder why. Is it just my own peculiar idiosyncratic reaction to the story? Sometimes I don't know what specifically provoked me to feel that way and feel like I'm being silly because that book is a classic or that film is an Oscar winner. But actually a lot of that feeling of narrative disappointment makes sense because sometimes the author will set up an expectation in the beginning that one expects to pay off and then the author fails to deliver. This causes the reader a feeling of disappointment and sometimes anger at being cheated the big confrontation the expected.
Reading a book is like an unspoken contract between the reader and the writer. The writer makes a promise to the reader. If the reader invests her time and attention in these fictional characters, plots and worlds, then the writer promises to give the reader an emotionally satisfying experience. Reading or watching a film is like dreaming. The ordinary defenses of the mind are down and the audience establishes a trust with the writer in laying itself so open. In this situation the author is responsible for giving the audience an experience of equal value and not abusing their trust by “hacking” their mind with unnecessarily disturbing images or annoyingly lengthy plugs for any particular religion or political philosophy. For an audience to endow fictional characters with reality, to suspend disbelief and open up one’s emotions up to made-up people on a page, screen or stage, makes one vulnerable and carries with it the potential for making one appear foolish if one gets “too involved.”
For a child it is considered socially acceptable to get highly involved in fictional worlds and to reproduce them through play. It is perfectly natural for children to act out fantasies of being “Pokemon trainers” or superheroes on the playground. The difference between reality and fiction, fact and opinion, is not so clear for small children, because their experience of the world is relatively limited and adults accept this.
This attitude changes in a social setting among teenagers, where peers snicker if you cry during a film. Being “taken” by fictional worlds isn’t “cool” in this world. Suddenly, it’s “cool” to watch horror films and laugh at them. It proves to others how hard and adult you are to be so innured from the pain of fictional people. I’ve never been a cool person in the way of someone who is unaffected, apathetic and ironic, even as a teenager. I remember watching action films struggling to hard myself against my concern for the families of the anonymous henchmen the hero cuts down. Such excess of emotion was considered “babyish.”
This was before I discovered that empathy could be sexy if one happened to be a poet from the Romantic era.
As I’ve grown older I no longer struggle against my tendency to feel for fictional people. It is fruitless to fight something so intrinsic to one’s psyche. If I couldn’t feel so strongly for characters, I don’t think I would be half as good a writer as I am now.
I watch films and read books to be one with the characters and partake of their joys and sorrows. Having empathy for fictional people, I believe, helps foster empathy and understanding for real people. Empathic people aren’t bullies because they can feel the pain of others as their own pain. It is a mental habit I believe we should try to foster in children, rather than discourage.
After all, it is only through increasing the empathy of human beings will we ever stop violent conflict and cruelty to those we deem “different” from us.