It is not enough to read an account of their experiences or to watch a documentary. We need to identify with them, to care about them, to see past their personal failures, so that our feelings about their lives go from sympathy to empathy. This is difficult when the other people are real with characteristics that are ugly. Fiction and drama provide the opportunity to tell a story by promoting heroic characters with flaws, instead of just ordinary people. Authors paint characters in a light that emphasizes what they want the reader to focus on, whether good or bad. They adjust the view and frame the subject.
In our real lives, we know imperfect people. Sometimes their bad qualities outshine what we admire. This does not mean they are bad, though it may seem that way. In stories, authors adjust the emphasis on different aspects of people. They can show a kind thief and a generous mobster. In my life I have seen people hurt each other's feelings. It is tempting to label them as mean. Instead I think of Sherlock Holmes. He often hurts and insults his friends, but Arthur Conan Doyle does not show us a mean man. Sherlock is a brilliant detective with bad manners. This knowledge changes my perception of real people. I think about their strengths and minimize rudeness next to accomplishments. If we can focus on what makes someone great, we may discern the distinction between flaws and terrible character.
In his tragedies, Shakespeare shows heroes as they evolve. They start out in an important social position. They are from important families and often achieve greatness before they are tormented by losing what they value most. The fall of a great person was designed to appeal to a society centered on the Elizabethan monarchy. Shakespeare's audience cared about kings and those next in line. In his plays, Hamlet is undone by revenge and Macbeth by ambition. These traits are found in ordinary people as well. By seeing them in otherwise idealized characters, we can identify similar people in reality and perceive them as separate from their actions.
Hamlet is a prince, well liked by friends and loved by Ophelia, the woman he plans to marry. His father's death brings his tragic flaw, an unbridled drive for revenge, to the surface. We can hardly blame him, since we are meant to admire him. This allows us to gain an understanding of vengeful people. We can see how someone might be a good person who commits malevolent acts. Justice is easily confused with revenge. It feels unfair when a criminal evades punishment or is rewarded. Justice is a societal process that can be slow. The wronged party may not want to wait while the wheels putter along. I have a friend who will not wait to have justice served. She takes revenge instead. Hamlet helps me understand her, even when I am upset by what she does.
Macbeth is a successful general and a nobleman. He is highly regarded by his soldiers and other military leaders. His trouble begins when the war is won. Excellence cannot be achieved nor victory attained by sitting at home. Macbeth is driven, internally and by Lady Macbeth, to greatness. This ambition gives him the will to kill his king, Duncan, so that he can ascend the throne. Shakespeare shows us the two sides of ambition: success and desperation for more. It is important to have ambitious goals. Without them we may lack direction. It is only when the drive to achieve overwhelms our morality that we have a problem.
Just as there is one king, there is one gold medal. When I think about all the athletes who, after a lifetime of training, resort to performance enhancing drugs, I think that the trouble starts with the idea that extraordinary effort entitles them to automatic success. They cheat because they have worked so hard and cannot accept failure. As Macbeth sees his chance to be king slip away, he is spurred to action by Lady Macbeth. Similarly, athletes are pushed by coaches when they also will benefit from the ring or trophy. Macbeth changes my perception of real people who avoid failure by any means necessary. For these athletes, the combination of their efforts and the pressure from their community makes them feel they have no choice but to seek greatness at any cost.
In modern tragedies, it is the ordinary person we are supposed to care about. These characters are small, with little influence in the world. It is their persistence in the face of failure that makes us admire them. They struggle to hold on to a life that no one would choose. The struggle is foremost, the goal is irrelevant.
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is tragedy at its plainest. Willy Loman is just trying to make it through his life. He lives paycheck to paycheck. He tries to connect with his sons, but they have no respect for him. His career is over, and yet he continues to show up. He is a sorry shell of a man, but he keeps trying. We all know men who are past their prime but refuse to give up. They insist they have "still got it" long after "it" is gone. They can be incredibly annoying; we are stuck listening to them at family gatherings. If I think of Willy Loman, I am reminded that bravery is not always about confronting a monster in the forest. It can also be brave to face inadequacies and continue despite certain failure. That sort of bravery is deep and invisible.
While the focus of the play is on Willy, his wife is the hero we overlook all the time. She is the only one who cares about him. She is loyal despite his infidelity. She believes in him when everyone else knows he is at the end. She works to make a happy home, though her efforts go unappreciated. It is doing the right thing in the face of failure that makes us admire her, if we pay attention. The world is full of people whose efforts go unnoticed. Real women and men put nutritious meals on the table, fresh laundry in dressers, and words of encouragement in their spouses' ears. Reading about Willy's wife reminds us to notice and appreciate the small kindnesses of those who protect and care for us.
Over the course of our lives we find people who disappoint us. It helps to see their strengths too. The way we perceive our family and friends impacts the reality of our relationships. We can change our perceptions by reading and thinking about idealized fictional characters who are similar to those we know. Stories can also help us understand people we have not met. They help us see refugees and convicted felons as real human beings worthy of care. We live in an imperfect world, filled with imperfect people, trying to make it through the day. It is easier to empathize with real people when we perceive them as flawed heroes. Give it a try.
Abraham Weitzman is a 15-year-old writer from New York City. He loves his family.
KidSpirit’s teen editors and contributors around the world believe in a better future. Help empower the next generation to raise their voices and move forward in a spirit of openness and inclusion - make a tax-deductible contribution to KidSpirit today.
KidSpirit, Inc is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization