Empathy is key to writing fiction. Authors must be able to imagine the lives of other people, to stand in their shoes, to see the world as they see it, to feel what they feel, and then put those experiences on the page so that the reader will experience them too.
This fundamental belief informs my teaching, and so I was dismayed at my student's murder and mayhem. I knew serial killer stories were an undergraduate cliche, (there is one every semester at least) but after a story with a room full of dead children I thought a course correction was needed.
If I wanted them to understand the importance of empathy, to see people as people and not plot problems to be solved with murder, then I needed something radical. The next semester I added a new rule to the syllabus and on the first day of class told them they could write what ever they wanted, in any genre, with one caveat: they couldn't kill anyone.
They were aghast. The looks on their faces: the shock, the horror, the anger! How can you even tell a story without a couple of killings? It's impossible! Of course, they tried to negotiate with me, find a loophole somewhere. What if a person is just put into a coma? Can we kill animals? What if it's implied the person might have died, but it's left ambiguous? What if the person dies moments before the story starts?
I didn't anticipate this response, but I should have. Rather than appreciate educational objectives, students turn every rule into a game to see how they can subvert the system. They test boundaries. I did it too.
So I explained my rationale and added that they were welcome to write about death. After all, death is a part of life. But I didn't want to see any on-screen killing. Everyone who was alive at the beginning of their story needed to be alive at the end of the story.
In a superficial sense the rule worked: the gruesomeness ended. About half of the class still wrote stories about death — a dying parent, a child who died in infancy, friends who died in a car accident — but these deaths happened off screen, before the story began. Gone were the gruesome, fetishized images of dripping blood and mangled flesh. The stories centered on the lives of children, parents, and friends left behind, struggling through complex emotions like survivor's guilt, resentment, anger, self-blame, and acceptance. These students empathized with their characters and imagined their lives. Then again, they might have done that anyway.
On the other hand, the no killing rule led to a lack of buy-in from students, usually but not always the men. Students in an creative, artistic class often expect they will have complete freedom. My rule meant they couldn't tell the story they wanted to tell, and so my class became a hoop to jump through, something to get past in order to get somewhere else. Even though the short stories I assigned provided plenty of examples, some students couldn't even come up with non-murderous story premises. They didn't know what to write about.
I kept the no killing rule for three semesters, each semester trying new ways to sell the idea, but they never really bought into it. Compared to the past, the lack of enthusiasm was palpable. My student evaluation scores even went down.
What I would do differently
I wanted to teach the importance of empathy, but it didn't work. It created resentment. But the goal was worthwhile, so what might be a better way to get there? If I were to teach again, I might try this rule: All of the principal characters have to know each other before the start of the story.
This would force them to create the hidden part of the character iceberg. In the best case scenario students would create backstories and interwoven histories for each of their principal characters, imagining past events, imagining how each character responded, and determining how that affects the character in the present. That would require empathic imagination. In the worst case scenario students would treat this as an arbitrary rule and follow it in a perfunctory way, say by having every character meet the day before the story starts.