Thursday, May 25, 2006

Character Empathy--Part 5

Soul Patroooolllllll!

Whatever will America now do with its Tuesday and Wednesday nights?

Okay, on to our series about ten approaches to creating character empathy.

#4: The character wishes for something universally understood.

This refers to desires common to all humans, those so understood by mankind that they don’t need to be explained. The need to be loved and accepted. The need to understand who you are in the world. (This was the desire that we saw briefly in Mara yesterday, as she longed to know who her parents were.) The desire to be healthy, to be happy, to be useful. Etc.

In this excerpt from Rekindled (historical, author Tamera Alexander), we meet the two main characters, Larson and Kathryn, who are married and love each other, yet can’t seem to overcome their emotional separation.
Larson pulled her to him and kissed her again, more gently this time, and a soft sigh rose from her throat. Kathryn possessed a hold over him that frightened him at times. He wondered if she even knew. She deserved so much more than what he’d given her. He should be the one buying her books and things . . . He wanted to surround Kathryn with wealth that equaled that of her Boston upbringing and to see pride in her eyes when she looked at him.

A look he hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

The familiar taste of failure suddenly tinged his wife’s sweetness, and Larson loosened his embrace. He carefully unbraided his fin­gers from her thick blond hair. Her eyes were still closed, her breathing staggered. Her cheeks were flushed.

He gently traced her lips with his thumb. Despite ten years spent carving out a life in this rugged territory, her beauty had only deepened. No wonder he caught ranch hands staring.
She slowly opened her eyes, and he searched their depths.

Kathryn said she’d never wanted another man, that she was sat­isfied with their meager life. And the way she responded to him and looked at him now almost made him believe his suspicions were unfounded. But there was one thing that Kathryn wanted with all her heart, something he hadn’t been able to give her. No matter how he’d tried and prayed, his efforts to satisfy her desire for a child had proven fruitless.

In that moment something inside him, a presence dark and familiar, goaded his feelings of inadequacy. He heeded the inaudible voice, and flints of doubt ignited within him. It wouldn’t be the first time Kathryn had lied.

He set her back from him and turned. “I’ve got work to do in the barn. I’ll be back in a while.”

Preferring the familiar bite of Colorado Territory’s December to the wounded disappointment he saw in his wife’s eyes, Larson slammed the door behind him.

* * *

Kathryn Jennings stared at the door, its jarring shudder rever­berating in her chest. It was a sound she was used to hearing from her husband, in so many ways. Though Larson’s emotional with­drawal never took her by surprise anymore, it always took a tiny piece of her heart. She pressed a hand to her mouth, thinking of his kiss.

Shutting her eyes briefly, she wished—not for the first time— that Larson would desire her—the whole of who she was—as much as he desired her affection. Would there ever come a time when he would let her inside? When he would fully share whatever tor­mented him, the demons he wrestled with in his sleep?

She looked down at her hands clasped tightly at her waist. Many a night she’d held him as he was half asleep, half crazed. As he moaned in guttural whispers about his mother long dead and buried.

But not forgotten, nor forgiven.

Knowing he would be back soon and anticipating his mood, Kathryn set about finishing dinner. She added a dollop of butter to the potatoes, basted the ham, and let the pages of her memory flutter back to happier days—to the first day she saw Larson. Even then, she’d sensed a part of him that was hidden, locked away. Being young and idealistic, though, she considered his brooding sullen­ness an intrigue and felt certain she held the key to unlocking its mysteries. Time had eroded that certainty.


We don’t see Larson treating his wife all that well. Pulling away from her, slamming out the door right after a tender moment. What’s wrong with this guy? If we saw that first we might want to slap him upside the head. But after seeing his own feelings of inadequacy, then seeing “the demons he wrestled” through his wife’s eyes, we can feel for him, even as he makes wrong choices.

These “universally understood” desires are effective devices for softening characters—even those who first come across as selfish or uncaring or mean. For that reason, #4 is a great approach to use for those characters who might be more difficult to like.

I recently read a suspense that I really enjoyed. (I’ll be talking to you about this book and its author soon.) The main character is a rebellious, trouble-making, heavy drinking and partying college kid. Can’t even remember half of what he does. Sound like a character you’d like? I sure wouldn’t. But the author employed #4. One thing this kid desired—he loved a girl. A nice girl. Whom he couldn’t have because of his behavior. Even as I saw him being an idiot, that desire softened him for me. I still wanted to shake some sense into him. But I didn’t dislike him. I more felt sadness at the waste of his life.

#4 is a powerful approach to creating character empathy.

Tomorrow we’ll take another short break from this topic and pick it up again next week. What’s up tomorrow? you ask.

First, the story of what I did this past Monday (it wasn’t pleasant), how I handled it (in all things I’m a suspense author), and how it could affect me forever (but I’m praying it won’t). And if that isn’t enough—also tomorrow is the unveiling of The Photos, oh yes, in all their glory. Brought to you with a behind-the-scenes look at the process of choosing said photos with the help of the folks at Zondervan. Who had a few laughs at my expense. (Really, now, would you want an acquisitions editor and an art director labeling your various looks and dissecting every square inch of your face?)

Read Part 6


Wayne Scott said...

Brandilyn, this discussion has been great - and the examples are terrific. Thanks!

BTW, is the suspense you spoke of called "Admission"?

C.J. Darlington said...

I was wondering that same thing, Wayne. My first thought was, that sounds like Travis Thrasher's Admission. I've been meaning to read it.

Thanks for all your insights, Brandilyn. Looking forward to tomorrow's post.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Wayne and C.J., you're right on--Admission, it is. I'll be talking about that book soon and running an interview with Travis, who is a talented writer. He used a very interesting technique in Admission--one I've not seen before. We will have an enlightening discussion with him.

Anonymous said...

Oh, let me guess! Brandilyn, you went to the dentist again! Just kidding. Can't wait to see the results of your photo shoot. I'll be taking notes--I have my own photo shoot in two weeks. No chocolate for me for awhile!

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Auhhh! Great lesson, this answers my question from yesterday. The antagonist can use #4 before he gets so out of control, that you learn to hate him!

Yea Taylor...he was my man!