A few days ago I wrote a post illustrating how filmmakers capture the perceptual attention of viewers. Fiction-makers also draw readers and viewers’ emotional attention by triggering their empathic connections with fictional characters. It’s possible to experiment with the manipulation of viewers’ visual perception by, for example, hiding the important thing in plain sight and distracting the viewer’s attention onto more visually compelling cues — a phenomenon called inattentional blindness. It’s also possible to experiment with empathic manipulation. In one sort of experiment the writer seduces the reader into identifying with despicable characters: it’s curious that both Humbert Humbert and Tom Ripley were introduced to the reading public in the same year, 1955. Another sort of experiment is to eschew empathic connection altogether. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard: is he enigmatic and deep, or is he a shallow and hollow cipher no different from the replicants he kills without remorse in PK Dick’s novel?
People can recognize specific emotions based on facial expressions, even if those expressions are on the faces of professional actors who aren’t actually experiencing the emotions they’re depicting. Can people detect empathy in others? Can they distinguish between authentic and simulated empathy? That was the purpose of the Voigt-Kampff Test that Deckard administered to suspected replicants: to evaluate whether the suspect was really empathic, and thus really human, or just faking it. Human evaluators of empathy are too easily deceived: that’s how Humbert Humbert and Tom Ripley got away with it. The Voigt-Kampff Test relied on less easily controlled responses like pupil dilation and EKG patterns — machines measuring the machinery under the hood. By the end Deckard wasn’t sure whether he himself could pass the Voigt-Kampff he administered to others. I wondered the same thing in a post from last year when I was on an empathy kick.
I find it difficult to know what someone is thinking or feeling and why. I don’t score very high on empathy tests — kind of like an early-generation replicant, or like Rick Deckard. But I’m also skeptical of these empathy tests: do they test real emotions, or conformity to general agreement as to what emotions ought to look like? I can, on the other hand, imagine all sorts of things going on under the hood in other people’s inner lives. If I’m wrong, is it because I lack insight, or because people are deceptive? Or are people more often than not being shallow and hollow, undeserving of the imagined depths of character I ascribe to them?
Fictions are simulated worlds populated by disembodied replicants. I can make a variety of psychological attributions about fictional characters, treating them as if they were real people. But the characters aren’t real, and neither are the emotions and motivations I attribute to them. If I were to assign some of my wanton psychological imaginings to my own fictional characters, then I might be mistaken for someone with deep insight into human nature. I would also be contributing to the popular but possibly erroneous presumption that people are deep rather than shallow and hollow. Consequently I tend to write enigmatic characters opaquely drawn, whose physical features are not described and who reveal little about themselves in dialogue with each other. I also deny my narrators access to the characters’ inner lives. In brief, I don’t dangle many hooks in the water attempting to snag readers’ empathy — if there really is such a thing as empathy. If readers want to attribute psychological depth to my characters then it’s on their own heads.