Where is the Kindness in Fiction?

I have always been a fiction writer at heart, but before I committed myself fully to fiction, I worked in film, writing screenplays and directing films, simultaneously teaching film production and screenwriting. It’s a cardinal rule in screenwriting that conflict is the engine of any good story. Without clear conflict, the wisdom goes, you have no story, because conflict is what interests and hooks a viewer and makes her want to continue watching the movie. As a screenwriter, if a scene or sequence wasn’t working for me, I had been trained to ask myself: What is the conflict? In pitch meetings studio executives remained slouched in their seats until the mention of riveting conflict. Teaching my film students at the University of Southern California and the University of Oregon, I asked them the same thing about their projects: Where is the conflict here? Often, in my critiques, I said: This won’t work, there’s no conflict.

When I left film behind and began to write and teach fiction, I was aware of entering a world in which the question of conflict was a much more murky affair. Genre fiction — mysteries, thrillers, romance, etc. — honor the primacy of conflict and the accompanying mechanics of plot that arise from conflict, but many “literary” writers (for lack of a better term) are wary of plot and therefore likewise dubious about conflict, as the two are inextricably linked.

I liked working with the more open-ended understandings of literary fiction. Writing screenplays had come to seem formulaic (3-act structure, plot points and reversals and climaxes that were supposed to fall on certain pages), and I loved that literary fiction allowed me more leeway to explore what characters were thinking, not just what they wanted and what obstacles were in their way (conflict). But over time I realized that my work often contained boring digressions. I began asking myself again: Where is the conflict? I learned to place characters who were cogitating against a backdrop of conflict so there would remain some urgency to the narrative, and I found some middle ground that worked for me, not eschewing conflict and plot, but discovering more multi-faceted ways to show “the human heart in conflict with itself” (what William Faulkner said is the job of a writer).

I have always loved reading (I hope every writer does, although oddly some writers claim to read little), and I also consider it part of my job as a writer to read. Despite a lifetime of reading, however, I only recently realized what moves me most in fiction. It’s not conflict — or rather it is not conflict alone. What I am avid about in reading fiction is the moments of kindness or tenderness or rapprochement that follow intense conflict, moments when characters have been suspicious of one another perhaps, or disliked one another openly, or when they’ve been cruel to one another, and then something alters their viewpoints so they can begin to see each other as fully human. Often in these instances they help each other out, offering whatever they have to give. That is what I crave in fiction. Not to see human beings at their worst, which I am treated to every day on the news, but to see characters navigating a path past pettiness, hatred, and bigotry to see what they have in common and how they can live in harmony. We’ve all had moments in life where we’ve taken a dislike to someone we hardly know, then we talk to that person and discover how wrong we’ve been to dislike them. These moments bring us up short in a way that is thrilling. They show us we all have more in common than we thought.

When I came to this realization about what I like so much in my reading, I began to brainstorm for examples, first from memory, then from my bookshelves. It pleased me to find so many books that contain scenes of compassion and bigheartedness. In some instances the entire story builds to an expression of kindness and connection; in others there are lone, but powerful incidents. Here are a few random titles I recommend highly, all different from one another and all books I admire.

I am a big fan of Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here, which is about a young woman who takes charge of her rich friend’s daughter and son who sometimes combust into flames spontaneously. The kids have strong personalities, and they and the nanny do not warm (excuse the pun) to one another easily. When a rapprochement does happen, it is thrilling, and it makes what might have been an amusing gimmicky novel into a highly moving one.

All of Kent Haruf’s works are woven through with astonishing heart. At a writers’ festival where I once heard him speak, I was taken with his humility. “I write about characters with problems,” he said. In his novel Plainsong, two unmarried farmer brothers on the high plains of Colorado take in a young girl who is pregnant with no place to go. The kindness embodied in that act prevails throughout the novel. While the characters clearly have problems, their mutual kindness helps them find what they need.

The absorbing novel A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara is astonishing for the way it showcases both cruelty and kindness, particularly as it plays out in the life of one character. The cruelty would be nearly impossible to read about were it not for a couple of characters around him who enact substantial and sustained kindness.

I could go on and on. Anthony Doerr is another writer of great tenderness; the kindness on display by the tortured main character in About Grace glued me to that book. Some of our great American classics feature characters who engage in radical, life-changing kindness. Think of Huck Finn’s brotherly relationship to Jim, or Caddie’s defense of Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, particularly in the context of the cruelty that prevails around these characters. And threaded throughout Charles Dickens’ entire oeuvre are numerous acts of kindness. One notable one: after Scrooge’s transformation he lavishes kindness on the Cratchit family.

As children we are weaned on books that feature friendship and benevolence gaining the upper hand over cruelty, meanness, mockery. (Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, A Secret Garden, A Wrinkle n Time are just a few examples that come to mind.) Children need to learn how to embody these qualities of goodness in their own lives, and we hope books will help them learn. But who can claim that adults don’t need that continuing lesson too? Now more than ever before in my lifetime, cruelty has become acceptable in the public space. It’s doubtful that reading the right books will fix the hearts of our politicians. But it might help the rest of us. Fiction offers us more than merely a portrait of what is — it also offers us is a chance to imagine how things could be. I am long overdue for imagining a kinder gentler world. I’m done reading books about unrelenting, unresolved conflict and snark. I need to be reminded, not every once in a while but daily, that in the midst of a strife-riddled divided world, human beings are still (sometimes) capable of merciful acts.

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.