Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Creating Character Empathy--Part 9

Today we’re looking at approach #8 for creating character empathy: the character is unusual or attracts attention in some particular way.

How do I attract thee, let me count the ways . . . Well, let’s see. The character may do off the wall things. May look different. May think in strange ways. May have an unusual first person voice. We could go on and on.

Important note: this approach needs to be mixed with one of the others. Because attention-getting doesn’t necessarily mean empathy-getting. People can act in all sorts of crazy ways to make you look twice. That doesn’t mean you’ll like ’em.

Well-written chick lits go this route. The author uses #8 to create a sassy character who often displays an interesting way of looking at things. The author mixes the unique voice of this first person character with #1--highly displaying a valued trait. In this case the traits are humor and wit. Face it, we like people who make us laugh.

In yesterday’s comments someone mentioned Scarlett O’Hara as an example of today’s character. Yes, she’s flamboyant and strong and center-stage with the men. This could make her quite annoying, but she’s just so very good at it. She can manipulate the guys to the ends of the earth and back with her charm. We can’t help but admire that.

Or how about Grandpa Blakeslee in Cold Sassy Tree? (Takes place in a rural town at the turn of the century.) Grandpa’s wife has been dead a mere three weeks, and in the beginning of the book he declares to his family he’s going to marry Miss Love Simpson, a woman young enough to be his daughter. His family is shocked, but he’s already made his mind up. (“I ain’t gon be no burden on y’all. Not ever. Which means I got to hire me a colored woman or git married, one, and tell you the truth, hits jest cheaper to have a wife.”) Even in the midst of his announcement Grandpa has tears in his eyes over the loss of Grandma Blakeslee. And he admits he’s lonely. The scene blends #8 with #3 (hurt or treated unjustly) with #4 (wishing for something universally understood).

By the way, if you haven’t read Cold Sassy Tree, you’re really missing something.

How about this one. See how many of our other approaches you can spot in the opening scene from Paul McCusker’s Epiphany. (If you haven’t read this book—you should.)

I’ve always been a big fan of being alive. Not a day has gone by that I didn’t wake up in the morning and in some way thank God for letting me draw another breath. In both good times and bad, I have believed that life was a gift–a treasure–not to be wasted. All this to say that I’ve tried to make the most of my days. And I suppose, like most people, I expected to live a long time. Which is why I was surprised and disappointed that I died at the young age of sixty-two.

My name is Richard Lee, by the way.

It was a stupid accident that killed me; one I’m a little embarrassed to confess. I had gone to the pond behind my house . . . I loved to walk there first thing in the morning and sometimes in the afternoons. Copper, my Labrador, demanded it up until the day he died. We had our morning and afternoon walks to the pond to observe the gentle ripple of the water, the pebbled shore, the soft earth, and balding patches of grass and weeds. It was a haven, as familiar to us as our mutual old age. And yet, like age, it was full of just as much mystery. Who knew what we would find there? New ducklings, a species of bug we’d never noticed before, fallen leaves of beautiful color and design, a subtle change in the shape of the pond after a particularly bad rain. The wonder of it all . . .

Just this morning – if it was this morning, I can’t be sure right now – I had bought a Christmas tree from Billy Atkinson’s farm, and he and I lugged it into my living room. Then I had pulled boxes of Christmas ornaments down from the attic. My plan was to get everything set up for Christmas, then maybe grab the mail and go down to the Park ’n Dine for a blue-plate special. Those were weaknesses of mine: the mail, the Park ’n Dine, and their blue-plate specials. For me there was magic in all three. The mail because it had letters, magazines, or even the odd manuscript from someone who didn’t know I’d retired from my little publishing business. The Park ’n Dine because it was an old fifties-style diner with red cushions and chrome railings, beveled mirrors behind the pie rack, and classic rock-and-roll on the Wurlitzer jukebox. The blue-plate special because there was a lot of food for not a lot of money.

But I had to have my walk to the pond first. It was a crisp December day; the kind of day that made me feel alive, with the air so frosty it tingled my cheeks and so fresh it felt cleansing to breathe it. The iced puddles on the hard earth cracked beneath my rubber-soled boots as I walked . . . The snow had given way to a deeper freeze before dawn, so that the trees wore a magical coat of sparkling icicles. White clung to the world like an old glove. The pond had a layer of ice that skimmed the surface like a sugar glaze. I took my place by the large rock – my spot for years – and thought of Copper first, imagining I could hear him padding around, sniffing and barking at unseen intruders.

For a moment I thought of my wife, Kathryn, as a younger woman, gesturing happily at a new discovery she’d made on the edge of the water. She often came down to the pond with me. Later, age was less kind and she developed painful arthritis in her knees and ankles. She reluctantly bequeathed the pond to Copper and me. Our children had grown up and left by then. From my rock this morning, I thought of them, too.

More specifically, I had been thinking of a small boat my second son, Jonathan, had built in his tenth summer.

I remembered it there, bobbing on the water, in danger of capsizing – when suddenly the memory vanished as my eye caught something. It was a red french fries container stuck in the ice in a marshy area. I . . . climbed off my rock to retrieve the offending litter. I had taken only two steps when I felt an itch in my chest. It was just a dull itch, as if a bug had made its way through my three layers of clothes to give me a bite. I reached up to scratch. That’s when I slipped on a nasty bit of ice and fell.

I don’t remember clearly what happened next, but I think my head hit a rock.

I felt so foolish that I laughed out loud. I struggled to my feet and only then realized that I wasn’t on my feet at all. I was, in fact, still lying there, half on the shore, half on the fractured ice, my eyes staring upward at the gray December sky . . .

You may have a few questions at this point. So do I. Dying didn’t give me instant knowledge about the secrets of the universe, as I’d hoped it would. I’m a little disappointed about that. Right now all I can say is that time and space seem skewed . . . So when I say, “I died this morning,” I don’t know if it was really this morning or last week or last year or eons ago . . .

All of this is terribly befuddling for a relaxed Baptist like myself. Because I made a heartfelt profession of faith at the age of eleven after Brother Walter DuBois’s week-long revival at Grace Baptist Church . . .

Sure, a dead voice is going to get our attention. But what does Richard Lee show us about his life that makes us like him, even if he is a little befuddled by eternity?

Read Part 10

1 comment:

Cara Putman said...

I think in addition to # 8, the author has used:
1. Highly displaying a valued trait such as loyalty, love or courage: Through the value of enjoying life as it's lived by his excitement at the new discoveries each day's walk to the lake revealed and by revealing he's a man of committed faith; and
6. Thrust into grief: grieving loss of wife's health, the maturity of his children, possibly grief for the death of his dog, and then hen the grief of his loss of life;

That's my best analysis!