Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Creating Character Empathy--Part 6

Welcome to Forensics and Faith, old and new BGs (bloggees). We’ve had quite a rush of newcomers lately—but you folks won’t remain new for long. Just let your eccentricities show, be ready to have some fun (which may include laughing at yourself now and then, as we humanoids tend to take ourselves far too seriously), and be prepared to learn more about writing fiction (all genres), and you’ll fit right in.

Before we get to our topic—am I supposed to say thank you for everyone’s comments yesterday? That’s sorta like saying thanks for the thrown tomatoes, but whatever. I shall remain a good sport. And true to my promise Deb Raney and Robin Lee Hatcher will be killed off in my next book, thanks to their know-it-allness. (That’s not a word, but it oughtta be.) I shall take great joy in killing off the Prez and Vice Prez of the BHCC (Big Honkin’ Chicken’s Club). While I’m at it, I may as well bump off the rest of its members, which would leave the world populated solely by fearless readers who love my suspense novels.

Oh, wait. That’s Heaven.

One more thing. The brand new issue of
Infuze Magazine is running an interview with me, questions posed by our own BG, C.J. Darlington. She asked primo questions; I tried to give primo answers. (She even let me talk about my favorite rock bands, yeehaw.)

Okay, after one interruption after t’other (all of them good, of course), we return to our series on 10 approaches to creating immediate character empathy. As a reminder, here’s our list. The character is:

1. Highly displaying a valued trait such as loyalty, love or courage
2. Particularly good at something
3. Hurt or treated unjustly
4. Wishing for something universally understood
5. Thrust into danger
6. Thrust into grief
7. Caring for others, especially at cost to oneself
8. Unique, attention-getting
9. Attempting to overcome some fear or make a change in life
10. Facing an inner struggle

Today we’re looking at #5: thrust into danger.

Well, this starts out pretty obvious. The danger can be anything from facing nature—a volcano, hurricane, tornado, etc.—to facing a bad guy with a gun, to being pulled into the vortex of a crime, and on and on. As a suspense author, I know all about thrusting my protagonist into danger—fast. These types of inciting incidences can be intriguing and exciting.

BUT—guess what. This isn’t enough.

#5 and #6 (thrust into grief) on our list are alike because they aren’t actual character traits. They’re circumstances. I’ve included them in our list because they certainly can help build character empathy, but a circumstance in itself, however compelling, does not a lovable character make. I can thrust a protagonist into the most intriguing crime imaginable, but if my reader doesn’t see something about that character herself to like, the reader won’t care.

Here’s another point that may surprise you. #5 isn’t enough even when it appears also to be a #1—David vs. Goliath circumstance. I say “appears to be” because most of them really aren’t. Sure, many of the dangers, especially in suspense, loom as huge and overwhelming to the protagonist. But in a true David vs. Goliath circumstance, the protagonist doesn’t have to take on the danger. He/she chooses to fight through an inordinate amount of courage. That’s far different from being thrust into an unavoidable danger and having to deal with it. Now, as time passes in the story, and the protagonist puts up an incredible fight against that unavoidable danger, we can begin to see the David vs. Goliath come into play. But that’s some chapters into the book, and we’re talking about creating immediate character empathy—meaning in the first chapter.

So #1 ain’t really a true supporter of #5 (most of the time), and #6 is also a circumstance, meaning it’s not enough of a support either. Which means you need to draw from #2-4, and #7-10.

In previous lessons I’ve used excerpts from others’ books. Today, I offer one of my own. When I introduce protagonist Annie Kingston in chapter one of
Brink of Death (first in the Hidden Faces series), the action starts right away—sirens in the neighborhood. Annie is pulled from sleep by the wailing—a sleep sweetened by a dream of her ex-husband, who left her and their two children, now wanting her back. (#3—hurt or treated unjustly.) Annie jumps from bed to see two Sheriff’s Department cars and an ambulance careen to a stop at the Willit’s house across the street. She runs first to reassure her 12-year-old daughter, who is a close friend to Erin Willit. (#7—caring for others.) Annie tries to look calm, even though she feels she fails “miserably” as she hugs Kelly, telling her daughter to wait while she goes outside to see what’s happening. Annie scurries down the stairs, fearful for her friends, and aware of her weakness. She doesn’t think she has the strength to face more tragedy.

. . . Traces of my dream snagged against my memory, like gauze over splintered wood. Vic making promises . . . then disappearing. For the millionth time I wished him back, despite all he’d done. I wasn’t made to be without him. To raise two kids alone. Always so many crises to handle, and goodness knows I wasn’t good at coping with any of them . . .

Previous paragraph—a sort of mix of #9 (attempting to make a change in life) and #10 (facing an inner struggle).

My goal, even as I wanted to start the action immediately, was to draw readers to Annie by showing both her strengths and fears. She feels weak and inadequate in her lingering grief, even as her actions show her as capable and caring. These two sides of her continue to be displayed as she learns of the murder of Erin's mother, and immediately steps in to help Erin.

In summary, be aware of the inherent weakness of #5. Even the worst danger in the world isn’t enough. Your reader has to care about the character in that danger. Try to employ numerous others of our 10 approaches—without stopping the current action—to create that empathy.

Read Part 7


C.J. Darlington said...

Brandilyn gave some great answers in the Infuze interview, so stop on by and be enlightened!

Thanks for covering these points, Brandilyn. It's been great reading and learning.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said... I understand better, how to incorporate more than one number to ellicit the desired emotion!

Sabrina L. Fox said...

Great stuff, Brandilyn. I'd love to see you break down Violet Dawn someday. (I won't give anything away)

The way you built up our empathy for Rachel to the very end was so unique. I cared so much what happened to that girl. Which makes the outcome of the book so believable.

On the flip side, I think we've all read something and not really cared too much what happened to a character. Just because we didn't have that connection with them.

Wayne Scott said...

Sabrina's right. I was once reading a book (it sold a ton, and I ended up not finishing the series, but I tried, because my wife loved them) and said out loud "Will someone please kill this woman?" I had to stop and explain to my wife that I wasn't talking about her. :)

I'm going to miss Deb Rainey. Such a sweet lady...