Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Character Empathy--Part 3

Well, seein' as how Chris is gone (major mourning here), if it's not Katherine and Taylor next week, something's seriously wrong out there in votin' land.

OK. Now that I have that out of my system . . .

Second approach in creating character empathy:

2. Particularly good at something

Two subpoints here. (A) Emphasis is on the word “particularly.” She’s not just talented at the piano, she’s stunning enough to rise above all others, to capture our attention and admiration with her style, her touch of fingers to keys. (B) This approach involves details. We’re not merely told the hunter is efficient with a gun. We see him in action. He treats the weapon lovingly, with respect, oiling it and practicing with it. He’s portrayed with a keen eye, perhaps inexplicably detecting the smell of prey before it’s ever seen. The proficiency of his hands, the tilt of his body as he sights, his absolute stillness and measured patience until the perfect moment arrives to ease back the trigger . . .

It’s hard not to be drawn to a person with such keen ability, even when that person has clear flaws in other areas.

Anne Rivers Siddons uses this approach to endear Lucy Bondurant to us in
Peachtree Road. Not through showing one particular talent of Lucy, but through showing the whole person as breathtakingly talented at life. We meet Lucy as seen through the eyes of her cousin, Shep, when she comes to live with his family. Five-year-old Lucy has an immediate effect on her seven-year-old cousin, and this pull will play out through their entire lives in tragic ways. As we come to see, Lucy is needy and desperately driven, profligate in passion, self-centered, deeply flawed. We could so easily come to hate her and fail to understand Shep’s love for her if we weren’t first drawn to this almost ethereal creature through Shep’s mesmerized eyes.

That spring was altogether too dazzlingly, burstingly full of Lucy . . .

I was shy where she was gregarious; cosseted where she was, of necessity, used to fending for herself; physically clumsy and crippled by asthma . . . where she was bird-slender, swift and agile; timid where she was fearless . . .

And then there was her beauty . . . There was a light, an aura, a sort of halo, like streetlights sometimes wear in mist, that lay at times around Lucy Bondurant. I saw it that first evening, and it did not fade for me until the end of her life. She drew eyes to her . . . Lucy was, from the beginning, too vivid, too alive, too much, for the eminently proper mistress of the house on Peachtree Road.

Lucy was animated and vibrant; life seemed to brim and leap in her so that her transparent skin could scarcely contain it . . . The small blue pulses that beat in her throat and temples seemed . . . the drums of a sort of special vitality, which she possessed in greater measure than most mortals. Her laugh was rich and deep and almost bawdy, and she found things funny that would and did terrify most children of her age, and horrify adults.

She was ferociously bright, possessed a quirky, silverfish intellect that soared and looped and doubled back upon itself; her mind described its own windborne ballet, which few people in her life but I ever really followed . . . She was a dreamer, a firebrand, a small poet, a great reader. She taught herself to read when she was three, and by the time she came to us had spent a great deal of her life in trees and under back porches in the various mean homes Uncle Jim and Aunt Willa inhabited, lost and safe in books beyond her age but not her ken.

As that spring swam into and through summer and toward the crisper hummock of autumn, I was as nearly totally happy as I have ever been in my life, and perhaps will ever be again.

Who could not love Lucy?

Anne Rivers Siddons is a master at characterization. If you haven’t read her work, you really should. Peachtree Road is my favorite because of the complexity of characterization. Note in the above passage how she takes time to describe this character. Yes, Siddons stops activity in the present scene to do so, but she doesn’t stop action. Siddon’s description of Lucy makes us visualize the child in all her effervescence, so that this “telling” passage zings and feels full of motion.

One note—this particular example comes close to #8 on our list (Unique, attention-getting), but because of the focus on Lucy’s abilities and good points (whereas unique can include outrageous and other traits), I’ve used it here.

Read Part 4


C.J. Darlington said...

I would think the one danger with this technique would be to make our characters Supermen or Wonderwomen. I've read enough novels where the main characters are perfect in every way (especially the Christians), and it can detract from the overall enjoyment experience. There's nothing to relate to -- we could never be like them.

I know this isn't what you're implying at all (making our characters perfect), but I thought I'd mention it. It's something we can all keep in mind as we implement Step #2 into our writings.

That said, it's fun to read about a character who's particularly good at something (just as long as they're not good at everything!) :-)

Dee said...

Peachtree Road was a great example here.

In my screenwriting class this method was also called building authority through either the heart or head method. If a person was very good at something, then the author used the heart method. If the character had an enduring, but universal flaw, then we call that the heart method.

In Charles Martins When Cricket's Cry he uses both methods in the opening chapter to get his readers to root for both protagonists. Neither character is more perfect than the other, but they compliment each other somehow.

And yes, Chris should still be on American Idol.

Becky said...

I don't think I'd considered "expert at something" before, but that is especially important for male characters, I would think.

By displaying talent, a character can actually do some jerky things and not lose readers' admiration.

Interesting, interesting.


Bonnie Calhoun said...

wow! The light bulb just went on...I like how she put in the description without stopping the action! Great move!

I want Taylor to win! I was appalled that Chris got the boot. But he's got a huge career in front of him!