Friday, June 02, 2006
Creating Character Empathy--Part 8
Today in our series, we’re looking at approach #7 to creating immediate character empathy.
#7: Caring for others, especially at cost to oneself
Seeing someone take action to care for another person can be a real heart-panger, particularly when it costs the care-giver something. We’ve seen this approach used in bits, in support of some other main approach in a few of our previous examples. It’s a strong enough technique that a little bit of it can go a long way as a supporting approach. And it’s a pretty common technique. After all, it’s our caring side that makes people warm to us. This approach is even used pretty commonly to give the bad guy in a suspense a little three-dimensionalism. It’s called the “pet-the-dog scene,” in which Bad Guy shows his tender side. Kiss the hound, kill the human, there’s the ticket.
But here we’re talking about #7 as the main approach to garner empathy for your protagonist. If you choose this one, keep in mind:
(A) Overdone, the scene can become too syrupy.
(B) The caring needs to be given in an unassuming manner. A true care-giver doesn’t stop to think how caring he/she is being. The actions flow naturally out of a desire to help.
One bestselling novel that uses this approach very effectively, in my opinion, is The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks. Regardless of what you think of the rest of the novel, this scene works. It could easily be too sappy, but Sparks tempers the scene with a bit of self-deprecation on the narrator’s part, and also by the portrayal of the narrator’s own desires (approach #4). Yes, he spends his days with a woman--his wife--who doesn’t know his name and wouldn’t care whether he was there or not, but it’s because he loves her and hopes to revive her memories—for his sake as well as hers. Then the caring nature of this man is made even stronger when he’s shown taking time to ask the nurses about their own families in the midst of his pain.
. . . The sun has come up and I am sitting by a window that is foggy with the breath of a life gone by. I’m a sight this morning: two shirts, heavy pants, a scarf wrapped twice around my neck and tucked into a thick sweater knitted by my daughter thirty birthdays ago. The thermometer in my room is set as high as it will go, and a smaller space heater sits directly behind me. It clicks and groans and spews hot air like a fairy-tale dragon, and still my body shivers with a cold that will never go away, a cold that has been eighty years in the making . . .
My life? . . . I am nothing special . . . I am a common man with common thoughts and a common life. There are no monuments dedicated to me and my name will soon be forgotten, but I’ve loved another with all my heart and soul, and to me, this has always been enough.
. . . There is a sickness rolling through my body; I’m neither strong nor healthy, and my days are spent like an old party balloon; listless, spongy, and growing softer over time.
I cough, and through squinted eyes I check my watch. I realize it is time to go. I . . . shuffle across the room, stopping at the desk to pick up the notebook I have read a hundred times . . . I walk on tiled floors, white . . . like my hair and the hair of most people here . . .
I hear the muffled sounds of crying in the distance and know exactly who is making those sounds. Then the nurses see me and we smile at each other and exchange greetings . . . they whisper among themselves as I pass. “There he goes again,” . . . “hope it turns out well” . . .
I reach the room . . . There are two others in the room, and they smile at me as I enter. “Good morning,” they say with cheery voices, and I take a moment to ask about the kids and the schools and the upcoming vacations. We talk above the crying for a minute or so. They do not seem to notice; they have become numb to it, but then again, so have I.
. . . I sit in the chair that has come to be shaped by me. They are finishing up now; her clothes are on, but still she is crying. It will become quieter after they leave, I know. The excitement of the morning always upsets her; and today is no exception . . .
I sit . . . and stare at her, but she doesn’t return the look. I understand, for she doesn’t know who I am . . . Then turning away, I bow my head and pray silently for the strength I know I will need. I have always been a firm believer in God and the power of prayer, though to be honest, my faith has made for a list of questions I definitely want answered after I’m gone.
. . . I open the notebook . . . There is always a moment right before I begin to read the story when my mind churns, and I wonder, Will it happen today? . . . It is the possibility that keeps me going . . . I realize the odds, and science, are against me. But science is not the total answer . . . and that leaves me with the belief that miracles . . . are real and can occur . . . So once again . . . I begin to read the notebook aloud, so that she can hear it, in the hope that the miracle that has come to dominate my life will once again prevail.
And maybe, just maybe, it will.
How can you not like this guy? How can you not want to hear his story?
Read Part 9