UNCONDITIONAL POSITIVE REGARD: A Challenge To Readers

In my first post, I spoke of stories about people making choices that lead to difficult challenges and affect others in unfortunate ways. When serious fiction does this, readers are faced with point-of-view characters who may be difficult to identify with, care about, and follow to the end of their story. Have you ever felt challenged to give those characters unconditional positive regard? The author may be challenging you to overcome your first reactions and grow to root for them as they deal with the consequences of what they have done. Even in reading a story, much less going through a life, it takes an effort to bring compassion to people who make choices we don’t understand.

You can find this request at the center of much great fiction. Atonement, the example in my first post, takes this to the limit. William Kennedy’s Ironweed follows the life of a union striker who kills a strikebreaker with a perfectly aimed rock (he was a disappointed minor league pitcher) and, preoccupied, carelessly drops his own baby on his head. Kennedy manages to make him a sympathetic character, getting his readers to care about him and follow his story to the end.

I will take the liberty of using my work as examples. In Boundaries, my first novel, the lawyer begins the case with a grievous deception of his client. In a short story entitled “Milt’s Advice Booth,” in my collection entitled Last Night At The Vista CafĂ©, a lonely, dispirited man fails to tell people who mistake him for someone else that he is not who they think he is. They come to rely upon him for advice he has no business giving. In both stories, the POV characters get themselves in trouble for conduct few would find acceptable. My challenge is to move readers past their first reactions, to follow these characters with open minds. Though in stories like these my main goal is honest description of something real, I am also searching to find my empathy and to put that challenge before my readers. With some characters this is as tall an order as it with some folks we experience in our lives. None of us are able to find unconditional positive regard all the time. We can only try. The challenge can make for a good story.

In my work as a mediator of couples seeking divorce, sometimes fighting bitterly over custody arrangements for their children, I am often challenged to find empathy for people whose conduct disturbs me. Perhaps this work is part of what motivates me to follow POV characters whose confusion, ambivalence, and preoccupations cause them to hurt others and themselves in stories about what it means to be human. Though confidentiality prohibits me from using my cases as examples, someday I will disguise the innocent in order to protect them and let my imagination take me where it will.

I’d love to hear from you about this. Give our conversation your examples and insights. We’ll see what directions this takes us. We’ll just follow our noses.

Jim

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