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How Authors prompt Readers to empathise with villains in literature

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Introduction

Empathy, which is the ability to perceive someone’s emotions and conceive how they might be thinking or feeling, is differentiated in modern psychological research as ‘Affective Empathy and Cognitive Empathy’ (Ekman, 2010). The former of which describes the automatic sensations we experience in response to other people’s emotions, while the latter is the ability to comprehend and appreciate someone’s emotions and resulting behaviours (Ekman, 2010). Creating cognitive empathy especially in literature and for the protagonist of a literary work, in particular when the protagonist is morally ambiguous and leans more toward the title of anti-hero, is an astonishing feat for any author. The readers’ empathy for the character and their rationalization of the character’s behaviours and actions can be created in numerous ways, one of which is through the guise of love. Love is more than just a desire; it is a need, a primal instinct as deep-rooted as anger, fear, and joy and is ubiquitous among all humans (Fischer, 1999). Although very beauteous, love does not always include happiness; it can quickly transform into compulsive obsessive behaviours which can develop into love addiction (Vosmer, 2022). This love addiction and the associated dangerous behaviours can be found in abundance in Joe Goldberg, the protagonist of Caroline Kepnes’, ‘You’. The question is whether the pretence of love is enough to allow audiences to empathize with the Joe with full knowledge of his transgressions.

 

Other than creating a character who goes to great lengths to prove or express his love, Kepnes has also created a character who explicitly expresses his inner thoughts and emotions as well his traumatic memories of childhood, making it sometimes challenging to not empathise with him. Authors are able to generate a sense of empathy by creating characters that although morally reprehensible, can be relatable – due to the revelation of their inner thoughts and emotions as well as their traumatic childhood.

 

This will be examined through the novel You written by and published by Caroline Kepnes in 2014. The novel follows the story of Joe Goldberg, a bookstore employee who emerges with a twisted obsession with a customer by the name of Beck. The novel’s title You refers to Joe’s unhealthy fixation on Beck. What he believes to be love for Beck quickly transforms into a scarred and perverse version of devotion as he resorts to appalling methods in order to control her such as: kidnapping, theft and even murder. Despite the fact that these atrocious acts can clearly categorize him as a villain, the author still manages to create small pockets in the novel that make the audience relate to him and even empathize with him through complex literary techniques, namely, characterization. The readers’ illogical inclination towards empathizing with a man who has committed all of these horrendous actions begs the question: “How does Caroline Kepnes use characterization to elicit readers’ empathy for a villain such as Joe Goldberg in the novel ‘You’?

 

Caroline Kepnes said in an interview in Her Magazine: “And the mess in his head, the sensitivity and selfishness self-righteousness, this is what drives me in every book, organising the mess in the head of this character that knows how to pass as “normal” (Kepnes, 2013).  Her statement suggests that she wanted to show how a mentally unstable character bearing a great amount of anxiety may succeed in passing as a relatable person in the eyes the reader and her way of achieving that was through her writing style and techniques of characterization; specifically the use of the character’s internal dialogue, and the harrowing descriptions of the character’s past trauma. This possibility and tendency to empathize with Joe is extremely fascinating as it tackles implicit and poignant notions that readers of today can relate to; those of inner dialogue and the battle between morality and justification of evil acts that resides in the mind. This novel connects with the audience in a profound manner that transcends the suspenseful action and plot; the notion of having intrusive thoughts and being afraid of them taking over, is something people undergo on a daily basis and thus they might seek refuge and comfort knowing that they’re not experiencing this alone. The implementation of recollection of trauma is equally noteworthy, since the concept of not processing trauma is equally pervasive in most people, especially in recent generations, have undergone severely traumatic experiences, and only a small portion understand the effect this trauma has had on their life (National Library of Medicine, n.d.). Understanding how these techniques would prompt readers to want to empathize with such characters is therefore indispensable as it will allow one to understand their incoherent desire to explicate redemption for a monstruous character such as Joe Goldberg.

 

In terms of the research methodology, sources mostly consist of secondary sources except the book itself. The majority of the sources aid in obtaining a broadened more detailed scope of Joe Goldberg’s character as they are a key component in deciphering the audience’s puzzling wish to empathize with him. The secondary sources are mainly composed of journals, articles and research papers and they all have helped forge a clear link between his psychotic behaviour and the characterization employed in the novel and its effect on the readers in particular  how it could lead them to empathize with him. The main techniques that Caroline Kepnes utilized in order to make Joe Goldberg worthy of empathy, to a universal audience, are her flummoxing  incorporations of: internal dialogue, and the character’s revelation of past trauma and intrusive thoughts.

Characterization Techniques

Internal Dialogue

 

One of the main ways in which the author allows the reader to delve into the mind of the character and even empathize with him at times, is by allowing the audience to examine his thoughts and emotions through the constant and detailed internal dialogue. Empathy is a process by “which a person centrally imagines the narrative (thoughts, feelings, and emotions) of another person” (Goldie, 2000 p. 195). It is essentially the need to look for the good in a character despite their flaws, however extreme, and look at their innocence despite their darkness. While reading the novel, the audience may find themselves gravitating towards empathizing with Joe’s tribulations, essentially meaning that their empathy is derived from the character’s suffering which is depicted by the author. Fritz Alwin Breithaupt has researched this occurrence in exceptional depth and labelled it as “empathic sadism” (as cited in Szanto, 2019). He believes that villainous characters are much more complex and require complicated narratives and psychological characterization that allow readers to empathize with them, which is the exact case with Joe Goldberg as Kepnes’ perplexing inclusion of characterization One of the main ways in which the author allows the reader to delve into the mind of the character and even empathize with him at times, is by allowing the audience to examine his thoughts and emotions through the constant and detailed internal dialogue. Empathy is a process by “which a person centrally imagines the narrative (thoughts, feelings, and emotions) of another person” (Goldie, 2000 p. 195). It is essentially the need to look for the good in a character despite their flaws, however extreme, and look at their innocence despite their darkness. While reading the novel, the audience may find themselves gravitating towards empathizing with Joe’s tribulations, essentially meaning that their empathy is derived from the character’s suffering which is depicted by the author. Fritz Alwin Breithaupt has researched this occurrence in exceptional depth and labelled it as “empathic sadism” (as cited in Szanto, 2019). He believes that villainous characters are much more complex and require complicated narratives and psychological characterization that allow readers to empathize with them, which is the exact case with Joe Goldberg as Kepnes’ perplexing inclusion of characterization techniques, in regards to the character’s thoughts and internal dialogue, which have lead the readers to often empathize with such a reprehensible character. One example of this is when he met Beck for the first time, and he immediately began to stalk her. He even went as far as to find out where she lived and would spy on her and watch what she was doing from her window. He then said: “The trouble with society is that if the average person knew about us - you, alone, orgasming three times a night, and me, across the street, watching you orgasm alone, alone - most people would say I’m the fuckup” (Kepnes, 2018 p. 17).

 

Joe uses the word “alone” as an antanaclasis which depicts how he believes that his solitary and non-consensual preying and observing of Beck would be regarded by others as abnormal in comparison to Beck being alone and physically intimate in the privacy of her home. He justifies his act of stalking by claiming that they are both alone but is seemingly subconsciously disregarding the difference between the contexts in which they are both alone. This elicits cognitive empathy from the readers because they understand why his lack of intimacy would lead him to this conclusion and why him being alone is a catalyst of his immoral behaviour and his justification thereof. The statement “most people think I am a fuck up” further provokes an empathetic response from readers because this statement clearly demonstrates his feelings of alienation and isolation from society.

 

Another example demonstrating the same point is a few days after he had first met Beck. He noticed that Beck is the type of person to document her life on social media and he was disturbed by the fact that there was nothing regarding him on there. He starts to spiral and decides that the best option to check if she was interested in him is to break into her house. He says: “One possible theory: you write about me in the notepad on your phone. Hope remains”(Kepnes, 2018 p. 26). This quote educes empathy in almost every reader who lives in a world of social media where immediate acknowledgement is necessary for gratification and assurance, and its absence can lead to feelings of desperation and self-doubt. The author’s use of the short sentence “hope remains” touches reader’s emotions as they see him holding onto a last hope of being acknowledged. These are the kind of extremes he thinks he must reach all in the name of his deformed understanding of love. He then said: “I had to get into your place, Beck, and I knew what to do” (Kepnes, 2018 p. 26). Him saying “he had to” implies that he is being forced and is inexplicably bound to continue with his decisions and behaviours. His inner dispute is reflected thoroughly through the employment of words such as “had to” as they are indicative of obligation, of duty but it is clear that this was not the character’s real wish. This cognitive dissonance is expressive of how instead of recognizing the ethical implications of his actions, he instead scours for any positive aspects no matter how absurd or convoluted, to dismiss the negatives (Harmon-Jones, 2019). He is overlooking the severity of the crime of breaking and entering and is looking at what he believes is a justification; the seeking of closure and assurance that Beck thinks about him the way he thinks about her creating a relatable moment that audiences may empathize with. Kepnes uses this extreme circumstance of felony to showcase the ubiquitous human compulsion to change one’s perception of their knowingly ill-advised decisions to justify it, rather than stopping or changing the behaviour, known as reducing dissonant cognitions.  (Harmon-Jones, 2019) Another reason the audience would want to empathize with Joe is the allure of a serial killer or psychopath in the eyes of the audience; humans are curious rational creatures that prefer having an explanation for everything; however, when a character like Joe Goldberg comes along, a character whose actions areperplexing and hard to explain, the reader is drawn to it (Dietrich, 2010). Kepnes chooses to employ a number of villain specific empathy stimulating tools such as portraying Joe as a realization of the dark thoughts that many readers have and which are allowed to come to life in her words. She also uses Joe’s glamourization of his actions to leverage how fictional violence or immorality is often more accepted and related to by audiences than non-fiction (Morrison et al., 2019). This curiosity can often evolve into a connection as the reader is exposed to all personal details of Joe Goldberg’s life and thus this connection can lead to empathizing with such a character.

 

On the other hand, it could be argued that Joe is a borderline psychopath and all his inner thoughts are actually just delusions from a mentally unstable serial killer (O'Neill, 2008). The internal dialogue often makes him worthy of empathy when he is justifying the stalking and obsessive behaviour but other times when he poisons, kidnaps and brutally murders people who he just thinks are unworthy of being in Beck’s life, that is when the inner dialogue and justification may not be enough to make the reader empathize with Joe’s deluded actions. This boundary of empathy that the reader would likely associate with Joe’s most extreme and universally frowned upon transgressions is potentially Kepnes’ way of creating this empathetic but immoral character without readers idolizing him or mimicking his behaviours.

 

An example demonstrating this point is when Joe impersonated a food critic by the name of Nathan Herzog in order to contact Benji, who is Beck’s manipulative ex-boyfriend. He deemed him unworthy of her as he was just playing with her emotions and he thus took matters in his own hands. After meeting him he went on to drug him: “I am pouring a baggie of crushed Xanax into a glass of water. He’ll gulp. He’s nervous. He takes the water. He thanks me. He can’teven say thank you without sounding like a phony” (Kepnes, 2018 p. 60).  He then goes on to kidnap him: “He doesn’t wake up while I drag him into the cage and I lock him in there and smile. Excellent” (Kepnes, 2018 p. 60). These words underline the clear link between the author’s writing style and the reader’s need to empathize with Joe Goldberg; the short sentences spoken by Joe imply nervousness and uncertainty thus showing that he is in a mental battle with himself. They equally suggest that he is at a mental crossroads; he is committing these unspeakable actions while simultaneously doubting himself  and is expressing his unease through tempestuous and sudden sentences. The short sentences “He’ll gulp. He’s nervous. He takes the water. He thanks me” create a sense of breathlessness and nervousness but at the same time, ironically, calculated steps. The immensely minimalistic nature of the writing style here equally demonstrates the character’s agitation as it is clinical, cold and superficial yet at the same time indicates his inner dispute. Here, Kepnes creates empathy and relatability for the character by humanizing him through the common impulse to resort to binary decisions as a way to cope with a stressful decision (Carruci, 2017).

 

The internal dialogue present throughout the whole novel may be enough to make the audience see past his obsessive tendencies but when these tendencies develop into drugging and kidnapping, it leads the audience to think that maybe Joe is too far gone to be saved. Despite the fact that kidnapping a person is not justifiable at all, Joe’s true motives for this decision are revealed when he sees Beck, drunk in a train station, about to fall onto the track. She was on her phone, awaiting any kind of message from Benji. Joe then says: “I’d like to throw it on the tracks and hold you as we wait for the train to run it down. There’s a reason it’s cracked and there’s a reason you left it in your basket at the bookshop that day. Deep down, you knowyou’d be better off without it” (Kepnes, 2018 p. 36). This quote is pertinent because the author is implicitly alluding to how Benji treats Beck; with Beck being the cracked phone and Benji being Beck herself.  By adverting to Benji’s horrible treatment towards Beck (how he manipulates her into thinking she is not enough for him consequently making herself conscious, and also treating her with immense negligence); the author is thus comparing Benji’s negligence towards Beck to Beck’s careless attitude towards her phone. This complexity going back to when Joe kidnapped Benji and put him in the cage, after committing that despicable action Joe then proudly said: “… then there’s the grand prize that is his phone (I don’t have to tell you that I take that)” (Kepnes, 2018 p. 60).

 

This reiterates the point that Joe is irredeemable due to his proudness and his audacity to say “I don’t have to tell you that I take that”. He says that because when Beck was about to fall onto the rail tracks he stole her phone in order to spy on her and now he is doing the exact same thing to Benji. The usage of such language is indicative of pride and fulfilment and can thus lead the audience to stray from their decision to empathize with him as the language clearly shows that the character feels absolutely no remorse. Yet, despite these moments, audiences still have moments in which they cannot avoid feeling empathy for Joe whose childhood trauma appears to have affected him irreparably.

Revelations of Past Trauma

An equally potent form of characterization the author utilized is the revealing of the character’s past trauma which allows readers to feel empathy for Joe despite his despicable acts. Joe’s traumatic life experiences shaped his personality and thus his actions; fostering audienceempathy through viewing Joe’s perspective to his most vulnerable state, prior to his crimes and misdeeds (Silver, 2015). Kepnes reveals these childhood traumas and character background sporadically and interjects them in moments that remind Joe of his childhood by having Joe mentally recount vivid and detailed first person memories of the abuse and abandonment he was afflicted with. This sporadic incorporation of flashbacks to Joe’s trauma-ridden childhood is likely done to elicit empathy at specific points in the narrative where it is more likely to be effective rather than all the flashbacks being included consequently.

 

Both the actions and personality of Joe are very controversial, because on the surface, they are just the representation of an obsessive, delusional and traumatised stalker. But under this layer, Joe is just the child who was abandoned by his family and was taken in by Mr. Mooney, the bookshop owner. Joe was thus born into a dysfunctional family and even Mr. Mooney was not the best parental figure as he sometimes locked Joe in a cage in order to ‘discipline’ him. This childhood trauma may lead the audience to empathize with him, as he obviously has been denied of love and intimacy, and perhaps is therefore prepared to do anything to achieve these feelings he was deprived of. By shifting readers’ perceptions of Joe to his childhood, Kepnes is able to illustrate the character in his most innocent essence, through which she is able to elicit readers to momentarily disregard the transgressions and horrific tendencies of his future self, and only perceive him as the prey of his past abusers, rather than the eventual predator he manifests into as a result.

 

This significant point relates directly to Joe’s personality as every person’s character, specifically in literature, is based upon their past experiences and primarily their childhood consciousness as it is an extremely crucial part of someone’s life (Hampson, 2009). Thechildhood trauma Joe endured can be considered a primary factor in explaining his behaviour. His lack of support and processing trauma  has thus caused him to become unstable, obsessive and controlling. The author gives readers a glimpse into Joe’s character through the descriptions provided by Joe’s flashbacks of his childhood trauma. This technique is effective because this is the primary tool that allowed the audience to truly connect with Joe and get a more enlightened view on how his flawed childhood shaped his personality and thus his actions. His personality, specifically his childhood trauma, is an important aspect that could explain why the readers feel the need to empathize with him.

 

A pertinent example of this reiterating this point is the usage of analepsis through Joe’s interruption into narrating how Mr. Mooney, the bookshop owner, used to treat him. It was when he was sixteen and he forgot to close the cage where they kept the rare and first edition books: “You failed, Joseph,” said Mooney when he was younger and still old, the kind of guy who was never young, not really. “You failed me and you failed the books.” “I’m sorry.” I said. “But we never shut cabinets or doors in my house.” “That’s because your father is a pig, Joseph,” he said. “Are you a pig?” “I said no” (Kepnes, 2018 p. 46). This could be interpreted to be a form of mental abuse; Mr. Mooney knows that family is a sensitive subject for Joe, yet he stills addresses it harshly and refers to his father as a “pig” in order (in his view) to teach him a lesson. Kepnes here demonstrates through the line “You failed me and you failed the books,” how disappointment and resentment influenced Joe, and how he internalized and believed he had committed a far worse offense than those inflicted upon him. Through the words, “I’m sorry”, It could consequently be deduced that Joe was not completely responsible for the monster he has become, nor for his harrowing journey to attain love no matter the cost because, from a young age, he is indoctrinated into thinking that he is inherently defective. According to novelistJacquelyn Mitchard, in an article published on January 31st 2022, this phenomenon, human in nature, is referred to as the godfather effect (Mitchard, 2022). “The ability to go on loving someone even when that person has done something awful is one of the hallmarks of who we are” – Jacquelyn Mitchard.  In simple terms, it is called empathy and compassion as it is every human’s nature to look past the evil and consequently forgive a person for their misdeeds (McCullough, 2008).

 

The character background is responsible for shaping a character’s personality and actions. Mr. Mooney had once punished Joe by locking him in a cage where they keep rare books and after getting out, Joe stated: “It wasn’t hard to slowly disappear. My mom left when I was in second grade so I grew up knowing that it was possible to leave people, especially my dad” (Kepnes, 2018 p. 46). The words in this quote accentuated by its first person perspective in particular in Kepnes’ inclusion of the phrase, “so I grew up knowing that it was possible to leave people,” is evocative of Joe’s abandonment issues and unprocessed trauma and how he coped with being deserted through denial. This form of coping illustrated by Kepnes through the thoughts he has, eventually ended up taking a toll on him as it created an incurable insecurity, immersed in his core, the feeling that he does not deserve to be loved. This is another augmentation of the readers’ empathy for the character since this feeling is not only common but feared by many.  The denial of childhood trauma evident in the words, “It wasn’t hard to slowly disappear”, can also result in poor impulse control; as in Joe’s case with all the stalking, kidnapping and murder he has committed (Karper, 2014). This rejection evolved into a deformity in Joe’s psyche, in his id. “The id is the oldest and the most primitive psychic agency, representing the biological foundations of personality. It is a reservoir of basic instinctual drives”(Lapsley, 2011). The author is depicting how the character’s obsessive behaviour is a result of this childhood alteration of his mind frame, caused by the trauma of his abandonment, and is the reason why he is willing to do whatever it takes for his innate crave for affection to be satiated (Wahyuni, 2021). The urge to satisfy this desire for affection is not uncommon for most readers to relate to, empathize with and therefore comprehend, how Joe could fall victim to his deep-seeded instincts.

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  • Conclusion

    Caroline Kepnes has managed to utilize a variety of techniques to make Joe Goldberg worthy of empathy such as internal dialogue, past trauma, and intrusive thoughts. The constant narration from Joe Goldberg's perspective aswell as the exploration of his intrusive thoughts and inner dialogue have been immensely effective in garnering the audience's empathy. The character's revelation of past trauma has also been a focal point in inducing this kind of empathetic response from the viewers, as it is human nature to empathize and feel for a character who has undergone severe traumatic experiences. The simultaneous use of all these techniques has led the audience to empathize with Joe Goldberg on several occasions, but many may still wonder what other reasons there are for audiences to experience empathy for characters that are often morally reprehensible and even repulsive.

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