Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Character Empathy--Part 2
In our second day of looking at character empathy, I’ve decided to go ahead and list the 10 approaches mentioned yesterday. Then we can take a look at each one over the next few days.
The character is:
1. Highly displaying a valued trait such as loyalty, love or courage
2. Particularly good at something
3. Hurt or treated unjustly
4. Wishing for something universally understood
5. Thrust into danger
6. Thrust into grief
7. Caring for others, especially at cost to oneself
8. Unique, attention-getting
9. Attempting to overcome some fear or make a change in life
10. Facing an inner struggle
Remember that these can relate to either a protagonist or an important supporting character. In the case of the protagonist we can’t completely separate these empathy factors from the inciting incident, which in itself helps create empathy. In fact, as we’ll see, some of these approaches may actually be the inciting incident (for example #5, often found in suspense—thrust into danger). In such cases, however, the character will greatly benefit from at least one more empathy factor being added.
1. Displaying a valued trait such as loyalty, love or courage
From Loving Libby (Romance. Author--Robin Lee Hatcher)
“Not again, Bevins,” Libby whispered to herself as she peered at the horseman’s approach through the latticework of sunlight and shadows. “Not as long as I’ve got breath in my body.”
. . . Bevins wouldn’t break into her house. No, that method was too direct and would get him in trouble with the law. He would take an underhanded approach.
. . . She pressed her lips into a determined line. She wasn’t going anywhere, frightened or not. And she wouldn’t wait for Bevins to make the first move either. She wouldn’t give him a chance to do his dirty work. Not this time.
She grabbed the double-barreled shotgun that rested against the wall.
. . . You can’t scare me, you yellow-bellied snake in the grass. You can’t run me off my land.
. . . Aunt Amanda had entrusted the ranch to Libby, and she meant to protect it and everyone on it . . .
In these first two pages of Loving Libby, we meet the spunky main character. The author manages to create a connection with her immediately because we admire her courage. This is obviously a young woman fighting—alone--a man who’s out to wreck her life. And she’s having none of it. The simple phrases such as “Not this time” let us know there’s a history between these two, so Libby doesn’t come off as acting without just cause.
Also in these first few pages we get a glimpse of a young boy named Sawyer in Libby’s home, whom she wants to protect as much as herself. Shotgun in hand, hiding her own fear, we see her taking the time to reassure Sawyer before she steps outside to face the intruder. This throws in a bit of #7—caring for others. Even in a moment of facing a physical confrontation with an enemy bigger than herself, Libby is worried about a young boy’s feelings.
The author needs to establish the reader’s connection with Libby immediately, because by page three, Libby is pulling the trigger to shoot the man on her land. And guess what—it’s not Bevins. It’s some stranger who apparently had meant her no harm. But she doesn’t discover this until after she shoots him in the leg and he’s on the ground.
The inciting incident: Libby jumps the gun, literally. She makes a big mistake. She could easily appear flighty and foolish. And we wouldn’t like her for it. We’d end up judging her. Yet that’s not what I felt at all about this character. She’s a David against a Goliath. We admire people of true courage. We’re more likely to grant them a mistake, even a big one. And Libby took the time to care about a young boy in the midst of her troubles. On two short pages—instant connection for me. I’ve been set up to be willing to forgive her the mistake.
Now, my connection would soon be lost if Libby left the poor guy lying in the dirt to die. She doesn’t, of course. She brings him inside to care for him.
What if the author had failed to create empathy for Libby before she shot the wrong man? That could easily have happened if the opening focused only on her reaction to perceived danger (#5). We might be wooed into empathy for Libby later through seeing how she ends up caring for Remington Walker. But I’ll tell you something. It’s far easier to create empathy for a character right away than it is to erase negativity. Better to start at zero than at minus ten.
By the way, on the ol’ backstory issue--I’ve only given you excerpts here and there from the first two pages, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that the author doesn’t stop the story for long paragraphs about the past problems between Bevins and Libby. In a few sentences, we get it. The author wisely leaves us with unanswered questions, telling us just enough to invoke empathy and set up the inciting incident.
Have you found good examples of #1 in other novels? See what the author did to make this approach work. Does your character need a strong value trait?
Read Part 3