On this auspicious day in American pop culture I do hereby publicly take my stand as a member of the Soul Patrol.Okay, time to get back to our writing topic. First, one thing I wanted to clear up about my post yesterday over at Charis Connection. (Thanks to Cara, for posing the question.) In the second part of my post talking about the blog tour for Web of Lies, I noted that sales numbers for the book on amazon.com went down. I should have said that sales on amazon increased, which meant that the amazon sales ranking number went down.
Now, on with today’s topic.
#3: Character is hurt or unjustly treated
As I’ve noted before, most of these 10 approaches to character empathy need to be combined with at least one other approach. Some just don’t work well enough by themselves (we’ll see more of this later). Having said that, #3 is one that tends to be pretty strong on its own. It’s human nature (unless you’re sociopathic or plain uncaring) to feel bad for someone who meets injustice. But see how this approach is built to even greater effect in the early pages of Watching the Tree Limbs (Contemporary. Author--Mary DeMuth). We meet protagonist Mara, nine years old, as she’s new to a little town in Texas. Mara lives with a woman she calls Aunt Elma.
. . . Mara missed Little Pine . . . Mostly she missed Nanny Lynn, Aunt Elma’s mother . . . Nanny Lynn taught Mara how to bait a hook, scrape and paint a fence, build a tree house, say simple prayers to God out in the fields, and swift-kick an angry rooster. “I knows you’ll grow up to be someone amazing,” Nanny Lynn would whisper over her as she tucked her between sunshine-smelling sheets. “God told me.”
But Nanny Lynn couldn’t live forever . . . They buried her at Little Pine Cemetery . . .
While Nanny Lynn loved on her, [Mara] never really thought about who her parents were and why she didn’t live with them. Nanny Lynn was big enough to fill her heart and quiet her questions . . . Now whenever Mara asked Aunt Elma who her parents were, Aunt Elma repeated the same exact words . . . “Now don’t you be asking things about them folks, you hear? Truth is, they don’t exist . . .”
In . . . the summer of 1979 . . . Aunt Elma seemed bothered nearly every day with Mara underfoot. “You need more tending to than a cow about to calve for the first time,” she said. “I’m plain sick of your questions, child. Go talk to the rocks or the neighbor cats, you hear? I’m fixin’ to take a nap on my day off. Skit cat, baby.”
A paragraph later, as Mara scurries outside as she’s told, she meets General, the boy who will take her to a park and rape her, beginning the horrific pattern that will continue through the summer.
The inciting incident of rape would certainly be enough to create character empathy by itself. We meet General at the top of page 5. But the author uses those first four pages to make us already sorry for Mara. We see the little girl as parentless, looked after by an unfeeling woman, the only kind adult in Mara’s life now dead. What’s more, she’s new to town and knows no one. This is a little girl who has no place in the world, doesn’t know how she fits in, and has no love in her life. These things in themselves endear this character to us. And we’re not even to the inciting incident yet.
Then, to make it all worse, when Mara meets General, his first words to her are “Hey, Beautiful.” He continues to call her this name. Through his deed even the word beautiful, which should stand for lovely, wished-for things in a little girl’s life, is trashed and dragged through the mud. When even beautiful becomes ugly and dirty, what does a child have left?
I should add that the beginning four pages also lay the foundation for Mara’s aloneness in facing the sexual abuse. Seeing her home life, we can fully understand why she has no one to turn to, especially when General threatens to kill Aunt Elma if she tells.
This is an extreme example of using #3 as the main approach to character empathy. Even so, it’s not used alone. Supporting approaches in this excerpt are: #4 (wishing for something universally understood), #5 (thrust into danger), and #6 (thrust into grief).
This #3 can be a good supporting approach, too. In fact, it can be used effectively in very small bits, because it’s so powerful. Two sentences showing a loving word from the protagonist ignored or rewarded with a hurtful remark can be enough to help the reader bond with the main character.
Tomorrow we’ll look at #4—Wishing for something universally understood.
Read Part 5