Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Creating Character Empathy--Part 10

Today we’re looking at #9 on our list: the character is attempting to overcome some fear or make a change in life.

These are two challenges that just about any reader can identify with. We don’t like change, as a rule. And we certainly don’t like overcoming our fears. Overcoming them means facing them first. Yikes.

I can think of two immediate challenges with this approach.

First, we need to present the problem well enough so the reader understands what’s to be overcome and why it’s a negative issue for the character—without loading in a bunch of backstory. That’s not easy.

Second, sometimes this approach is more of an internal battle, rather than an action-based one. If a guy’s in an airplane, parachute on, forcing himself to jump in order to prove he can overcome his fear of heights—okay, that’s action enough. But more likely the character is making a decision on whether to walk out on a relationship, or being pulled in two directions due to conflicting desires. So how to make that kind of struggle compelling in the opening pages of our story?

Long Train Passing by Steven Wise manages to do this quite nicely. It’s a quiet scene—nothing more than a woman looking in the mirror at her own deformity. Yet it lets us know who she is, the fears she faces. Notice how the backstory is handled. The scene gives only hints of it, not stopping the current story, but using these hints to raise further questions in our minds--the best kind of backstory. (Reference previous postings on that subject in the topic archives.) See if this draws you into her character:
Annabelle Allen studied her mirror image carefully under the unforgiving seventy-five watt bulb in the ceiling fixture. “How true it is that a mirror never lies.” The words were a whisper in the room, and she listened to them as if someone else had spoken. In less than an hour, she would be a teacher. Four interminable years of squeezing the value out of every penny, four years of working two menial jobs while making good grades, four years of being more than she thought she could be. And now it had come to this. The twenty-seven sixth-grade pupils of her first class would stare at the image before her.

So Annabelle Allen stared at herself with all the intensity she could muster. She made her eyes dart furtively at every part of her body, the same way that the fifty-four all-seeing eyes would, the eyes that would miss nothing. Even in the two-inch heels of her new shoes, she stood only four feet, five inches tall; she would look most of her sixth-graders directly in the eye—a small rainbow in an otherwise dismal cloud, Annabelle judged. Her well-brushed brown hair was puffed over her brow in an effort to add to her height, but she had to be very careful; it was easily overdone.

The green of her eyes met the points of green in her mirror. If only they would concentrate on her eyes . . . then all would be well with her image. For Annabelle Allen’s eyes were emeralds of inner beauty, ever dancing with delight or curiosity, ever probing gently for little signs of love in others. No . . . oh no, God had not taken her eyes on that fateful night.

Her other features were plain . . . a face a bit too broad for the nose . . . cheekbones somehow too high . . . She had no visible neck . . . Her head appeared to rest squarely on her shoulders, some would even say in her shoulders. With arms and legs originally intended for a woman a foot taller, her compressed torso commanded the attention of every onlooker. Her neck was basically immobile; simple sideways glances required a proportionate movement of her shoulders.

And all of this from The Fall—an event so far removed in time that Annabelle often imagined that it had never happened. There were days when nothing mattered, save for the power of her mind . . . days with no onlookers or mirrors. Days of grace. Days, hours, even minutes, stolen from the reality of The Fall . . .

She reached up and smoothed the flat, white collar of her light green dress. Like all her clothing, it was a dress of her own handiwork . . . The stitching was a thing of beauty in itself, but Annabelle realized that only someone with her skill could appreciate its perfection. Certainly it would not impress any of her students, but this did not matter; she had not stitched the dress perfectly to impress anyone. It was simply the way that the task should have been performed. It was Annabelle's way, and had been for as long as she could remember.

Enough of this now, she thought to herself. Stand here long enough and the little four-letter horror called "pity" would creep in and take part of her. She huffed a short laugh at the silly thought . . . She turned from the mirror and straightened her shoudlers as she scanned the orderly space that enveloped her . . .

The tiny woman walked quietly, almost reverently, from the room and into another . . . she reached to the corner of the desk and found her Bible, resting it in her lap. The worn leather cover was soothing under her fingertips; back and forth they went, like a mother stroking the head of her child.

Annabelle Allen hoped to teach her students many things, some of which were much greater than the three Rs.

As with the other examples, this one mixes in more than one approach. Along with #9, I see bits of #2--particularly good at something, #3—hurt, and #8—unusual, due to her deformity. She also displays courage (#1) in facing her new students, knowing they’ll think she looks strange—because she does. And in the last line she shows caring (#7)for the students whom she hasn’t yet met. That's quite a lot of approaches mixed in there. Altogether, this opening scene makes me wonder how that first meeting with the school kids will go.

Read Part 11


Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

This has been a fabulous series! Thank you for being our mentor!
I've learned a lot of new angles.

You rock Brandilyn!

This is more of an education than I've gotten from the last three books I read on writing!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Brandilyn. Told you I'd post a comment at some point. :)

This question combines character empathy and character goals. Can an external goal BE one of these approaches to creating empathy? For example, my character's external goal is to maintain a relationship (#4 wishing for something universally understood). Then again, it could fall under #7 (caring for others, esp. at cost to oneself) as she has a moral responsibility -- not to mention LOVE -- to make sure this person does not cause physical harm to herself.

Am I talking nonsense? I'd love your feedback as GMC is so hard for me. Thanks! Shelley