Two readers pick up the same work of fiction. One connects with it, the other doesn’t. All other things being equal, what explains the difference?
For me, one question above all decides whether I connect with a work or do not: Can I see myself in there? Whether the story takes place in a suburb like the one where I live, or in 17-century Japan or on the surface of Mars, still I must find something in a character that reflects some part of me. More than that: I must find someone who represents me—someone who, while I am reading, is me. The writer, skilled as he or she may be in all other regards, must create that affinity or lose a reader. Affinity is the deal breaker.
This conviction of mine goes back to my senior year of high school, when my public speaking teacher, a wry southerner by the name of Arnold Stanton, would repeatedly advise us, “Communication begins where one person’s experience overlaps another’s.” By “experience,” however, I came to understand that he didn’t mean actual, parallel life experiences. He meant the affinity between one person and another, the similarity in how they apprehend experience, in how they see themselves in the world.
This made a great deal of sense to me as I looked around at my fellow seniors (I was two years younger than most of them and, to the undiscerning eye at least, a standard-issue, glasses-wearing nerd) and realized how differently we looked at things. I wasn’t communicating very well with many of them and they certainly weren’t communicating with me. Bookworm and filmworm that I was, I felt closer to a couple of fictional characters than to most of the kids I knew.
We’ll pause here to forgive me retroactively for my adolescent self-pity, trucculence, pretensions of superiority, etc. I was, let’s remember, 15.
The first of the two fictional characters who were close personal friends of mine—guys I knew as well as if they were real—was Hamlet, whose story I read that same year in Miss Margaret Casey’s English class. Hamlet, you may recall, is away at school when he finds out that his father, the king, is dead, and that his mother has married his father’s brother, Claudius, who has usurped the crown that is rightfully Hamlet’s. The king’s ghost returns to inform Hamlet that he was, in fact, murdered. That it was Claudius who did it. And that Hamlet must now avenge his death.
I assure you there were no parallels between Hamlet’s actual experiences and my own as a teenager. But while reading Hamlet, I could see myself in the prince. I had dawning inklings of life’s inexplicable injustices; he lent them gravity and dimension. Hamlet’s as smart as he can be, but finds out that smarts are no match for this mystifying life. It’s incomprehensible to him that the world could be the way it is (watch “To be or not to be…” ), but the world’s that way regardless, and what’s worse, it could care less whether he comprehends it or not. He has no one—not even Horatio, his best friend, or Ophelia, the girl he loves—who really knows what’s made him so antic and unhappy. He’s wounded, bewildered, and generally flummoxed by a world where evil and injustice thrive and in which, if there’s an underlying plan, it’s been hid from us.
So Hamlet was a character in whom, as a kid, I saw myself. While most of my classmates—looking back, I’m tempted to call them “normal teenagers”—endured having to read Hamlet, I embraced it, memorized much of it, recited soliloquies on solitary walks staring up at clouds, all for the powerful reason that I’d found a kindred spirit. One person’s experience, as Mr. Stanton would have said, overlapped another’s, even though one of them was a kid with no social life in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and the other was a fictional prince of medieval Denmark depicted by some guy known as Shakespeare. This Shakespeare was really good at creating affinities.
Now, as I said, Hamlet back then was one of two best buddies of mine who didn’t actually exist. Who was the other? I’ll tell you next time.
(Did all this sound familiar? The post first appeared here in March 2010. But Hamlet–and the idea of affinities–came up this week in my short-story class, so I decided to rerun it, along with next week’s follow-up.)