Thursday, June 01, 2006

Creating Character Empathy--Part 7

Happy Thursday. My goodness, y’all were quiet yesterday. We had lots of visitors yet so few commenters. I’m thinkin’ you all were commented out after the previous post.

A bit of housekeeping before we get to our topic. Over at the left, down under all the archives, you’ll see a link to subscribe to this blog via Feedblitz. Through a subscription, new posts will come to you via e-mail. If you find blog-hopping too time-consuming, but want to keep up with posts here, that might be just the ticket for you. It’s a very simple sign-up process.

Today we’re on to approach #6 in our list of ten ways to create immediate character empathy.

#6: The character is thrust into grief.

As I talked about yesterday, #5 and #6 are alike in that they describe circumstances, not character traits or actions. Therefore, as with #5 (thrust into danger), #6 is not enough in itself. You’d think it would be. You’d think readers would automatically empathize with someone who’s faced with grief. Not so. We need more. This is very important to understand about #6.

Think about the times you’ve driven past a funeral procession or driven past a cemetery and seen a gathering of folks around a grave. Do you empathize with the people involved, realize they’re going through pain? Sure, if you have any feelings at all. But does your heart pang for them? Do you weep with them? You might, if your own experience involves recent death. But this won’t be the case for all readers, or even most. And we want to draw every reader to our character.

The problem with thrusting a character into grief right away is that we don’t know the character enough to grieve with him or her. If it happened in the middle of the book, we’d know the character better and be more apt to feel his/her pain. Grief in the middle of a book is more akin to our being a part of the grave-gathering crowd at an interment. Grief in the beginning of a book is more like our driving by and seeing the crowd. We understand the sadness, but we’re not a part of it. It’s a real challenge to make a reader feel the pain of grief in the opening pages of a book.

I was faced with this challenge in the opening of my women’s fiction novel written some years ago—Capture the Wind for Me. I’ve used this short prologue in writers’ conference classes on character emotion, so some of you may have heard it in that context. The character emotion teaching has to do with the presentation of the grief itself—how to make it work and work quickly, when the reader is just meeting the character. I’ve pointed out in those classes that the word “grief” is never mentioned for the protagonist, nor does she even cry. (Grief is so easily portrayed stereotypically). Here, of course, we’re looking at the scene differently—seeing which other approaches in our list of 10 are used to help build character empathy.

A personal note: I looked through a lot of books on my shelf in search of a novel to use as today’s example, particularly after I used one of mine yesterday. Finally, after spending far too much time in that search, I had to use my own once again. Sorry I had to do this. I want to present various authors’ writing in this series all I can. If you think of a novel that would make a good example for today’s lesson, please tell us so in the comments. And, if possible, list how the author pulled in other approaches to make the scene work.

I remember how even the sky mourned with us, hanging in shades of gray, chilled and fitful. How the wind moaned through the red-leaved trees in the cemetery. I was only fourteen. Nature’s sorrow seemed right to me, for surely the world could not go on as usual, undisturbed and blithe, in the face of our tragedy. Vaguely, I wondered if others in my family shared the same transcendent thoughts.Now at twenty I know they did. Seems to me such self-absorption is common to the grieving. Every act of nature shouts our loss—the merest drop of rain a tear for the deceased, a stream of sunshine hailing some bright memory.

My family and I huddled together, trembling more in soul than body, as we faced my mama’s casket. White and gleaming, it rested on wide strips of green fabric above an open and hungry grave.

“Should we lower it?” the funeral director quietly asked.


Daddy’s cheek muscles froze, tears glistening in his red-rimmed eyes. He nodded.

The wizened cemetery worker stretched gnarled hand to metal gear and started cranking. Chink, chink. Chink, chink. Slowly, the casket began to descend.

Daddy gripped my shoulder, grief bubbling in his throat. My brother, Robert, age ten, leaned against me, solemn, wooden. Chink, chink. Seven-year-old Clarissa clutched her coat around her, as if to wrap herself against the sound. I watched the bottom of the casket disappear, the blunt cliff of earth edge up its side.

Mama, I cried. Mama!

Memories pierced me like shards of glass. Saturday morning pancakes. Softball game cheers. Suppertime laughter. The way she hugged Daddy. Our talks of first love.

Cancer. Pain. Dulling eyes. Final words.

Lifeless head on a satin pillow.

Chink, chink.

Grandma Westerdahl wailed for her daughter.

The top of the casket disappeared. Still the man cranked. An errant leaf, brittle and worn, skittered across the ground to snag on his wrist. As if to say Stop! Stop your turning; crank the other way, up and up. Turn back time! He flicked the leaf away.

Chink, chink. Chink, ch—

Silence, save for the wind. The man rocked back on his heels, task done.

The ceremony was complete. Time now for us to go home. To leave Mama behind. My mind numbed. I could not grasp it—my mama’s warm brown eyes, her voice, her love, her life now stiffened, silenced. Covered by a casket, soon by soil. Her light, her dreams, her energy—a sputtering candle now spent.

We stood, bewildered refugees, staring sightlessly at the open earth.

Grandpa Delham put his arm around Daddy. Grandma Delham reached for Clarissa, but my little sister pulled away. Carefully, she inched to the edge of the grave, then peered down. I can still see Clarissa, her blue coat flapping against lace-topped socks, her weight tilting forward on one foot, neck craned. I knew she had to see the casket, had to have a mental picture to take with her, to remember after dirt covered all.

Grandpa Westerdahl held his sobbing wife.

Clarissa took her time, then sidled back to us, bleary-eyed and pale. Daddy grasped her hand.

I, too, had to see. Approaching the grave as if pulled by an unseen hand, I braced myself and looked down. Expectation did not lessen the shock. The pure white of the casket screamed against black earth. I reminded myself that Mama was not really there. That her soul flew in heaven, hovered at Jesus’ feet.

Little comfort the thought gave me.

We had to leave. I had a family to take care of—a grief-stricken father, siblings who needed a mama. God, I cried, I can’t do this!

I took a step back, willing myself to say goodbye to Mama. Willing it and willing it. Somehow I managed a second step. A third. Then I forced myself to turn around. Rejoined my family. I hugged Robert, slipped my fingers around Daddy’s arm. Clarissa still held his other hand.

As a group, we began to make our wearied way toward the car. To our home and life—without Mama. I clutched onto Daddy and trudged forward, even as my mind screamed I can’t leave her, I can’t leave her, I can’t leave her! I told myself to not look back. That I had to go on, all of us did. That my family needed me to be strong. I focused on my feet, one step at a time. Forward.

But a piece of my heart jagged loose and took a manic leap down the grave.

I’d say this scene incorporates bits of #4--wishing for something universally understood; #7--caring for others, and #9—attempting to overcome some fear or make a change in life. You'll have to be the judge as to how well it works. But here's the point I want to leave you with. Once we realize a grief-laden scene in a novel's opening needs more to make it work, the temptation to load in a bunch of backstory to "enhance" the grief becomes particularly great. Don't fall for that. Most likely it will slow your story. Instead, figure out ways to incorporate other character empathy approaches within the action.

Again, please let us know about other novels that would fit into this category. Tomorrow we’ll look at #7 on our list.

Read Part 8


Cathy West said...

Sadly enlightening.
And now I know how to spell wizened!

Since I won't be able to take your session at the conference (because I'm not published yet...grrr...), I will certainly enjoy all you have to teach me here on da blog!

And yes, I'm a goin' to Texas - yee haw!

Gina Holmes said...

Man, you're good! This is timely as I'm sitting here going through my proposal that my agent will shop around at ICRS. My prologue is 3 pages long where the protag is getting married and her groom is murdered as they share their first dance as husband and wife. I don't know if I pulled it off or not. You did an awesome job on yours.

Wayne Scott said...

No need to search for a better example, Brandilyn - this one was fantastic.

You asked for other examples. It's been over 20 years since I read "Pet Sematary", but I'm going to dig out my old copy tonight and see how Stephen King handled Louis Creed's grief over losing his son Gage - because I still remember how deeply he felt his son's loss. And though I didn't have kids of my own then, I found it completely believable that Louis would do anything to get his son back. I'll post what I find.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

That was a great lesson Brandilyn! And that book of yours is one of the very few that I haven't read, so it was a good example.

I'd rather you use your books anyhow :-)

This is a big help with my Prologue!