Thursday, June 08, 2006

Creating Character Empathy--Part 11

This is our final post on this topic, unless you have wrap-up questions, which I’ll address tomorrow. If not—I have lots of other news to tell you. The writing biz world is going by as we’ve been working on this series. Lots to keep you informed about.

First a question from Shelley, a new BG (welcome Shelley!). She writes: Can an external goal BE one of these approaches to creating empathy? For example, my character's external goal is to maintain a relationship (#4 wishing for something universally understood) . . . I'd love your feedback as GMC is so hard for me.

Yes, the character’s overall Desire is certainly one factor for helping to create empathy. But to totally understand what Desire for a character means, I refer you back to our series on that topic, starting on July 25th of last year. That should be a big help regarding Goal/Motivation/Conflict issues.

All right, for today, #10: Facing an Inner Struggle.

This one’s rather fuzzed at the edges, as it easily overlaps with some of the other approaches. It certainly overlaps with #9, which we looked at yesterday. But I delineated this from #9 (attempting to overcome a fear or make a change in life) because this doesn’t necessarily deal with trying to make a change. It deals more with being burdened and not knowing how to handle that burden. The character can be burdened all sorts of different ways—by guilt, depression, bitterness, ambivalence over an important issue, jealousy, hate, etc.

An interesting side point of this approach: the character doesn’t necessarily have to know he/she is burdened. For example, a character in the clutches of bitterness may be in real bondage as a result, but may not realize it. The bitterness may have become such a part of him that he just accepts it. This gets tricky, as the reader, even while in the character’s unrealizing POV, needs to be given just enough to know more about the character than the character knows himself. And if you manage to do that, it gets even trickier, because remember, we want the reader to like the guy, not think he’s an idiot. How to create the empathy in this scenario? Same answer as every other day. Bring in another one or two or three of the approaches.

The other, easier way to deal with #10 is for the character to know doggone well he’s burdened but simply feel unable to get out from under it.

I used both of these methods for #10 in the opening pages for two characters in Violet Dawn. Although it’s going to make this post a long one, I’d like to run both of them here to show you the difference.

A. Paige—mid twenties. Paige is burdened by her past, and she knows it. She’s downright haunted by it. This burden is shown from the very first line of Violet Dawn. Here are excerpts from the opening scene. Notice the blending in of approaches #4 (wishing for something universally understood) and #6 (thrust into grief). And, of course, after this excerpt, she faces #5—thrust into danger. (Oh, yes, the hot tub awaits.)
Paige Williams harbored a restless kinship with the living dead.

Sleep, that nurturing, blessed state of sub consciousness, eluded her again this night. Almost two a.m., and rather than slumbering bliss, old memories nibbled at her like ragged-toothed wraiths.

With a defeated sigh she rose from bed.

Wrapped in a large towel, she moved through the darkened house, bare feet faintly scuffing across worn wood floors. Out of her room and down a short hall, passing the second bedroom—barren and needing to be filled—and the one bathroom, into the small kitchen.

She unlocked the sliding glass door. Stepped outside onto the back deck. The grating rhythm of cicadas rose to greet her. Scents from the woods—an almost sweet earthiness—wafted on a slight breeze.

The dry Idaho air was still warm.

A large hot tub sunk into the left corner of the deck was her destination—a soothing womb of heat to coddle and comfort. There, looking out over the forested hills and Kanner Lake, Paige could feel sheltered from the world. The closest neighbor on either side was a good quarter mile away.

But first, captivated by the night, she padded to the edge of the deck’s top step and gazed up at the heavens.

A slivered moon hung askew, feeble and worn. Ice chip stars flung themselves in all directions. The Big Dipper tipped backward, pouring into Kanner Lake, which seemed to brood under the spangled sky. Across the sullen waters a few downtown lights resolutely twinkled.

Intense yearning welled so suddenly within Paige that she nearly staggered in its presence. She clutched the towel tighter around her body, swaddling herself. The universe was so vast, the world so small. A mere speck of dust, Earth churned and groaned in the spheres of infinity. Upon that speck, mothers and fathers, children and friends laughed and cried and celebrated one another. No bigger than dust mites they were, compared with the vastness of space. Their lives, their loves—insignificant.

So why did she long to be one of them?

Paige stared at the downtown lights across the water. In eight hours she would return there, among the families and the lovers. Surrounded by people who belonged. Separated from them by a mere two feet of counter space … and a chasm. Behind the Simple Pleasures counter on Main Street, she would sell gift items and pretty home accessories to tourists and local residents. Parents with tagging children, couples, and friends. Sometimes from the corner of her eye she would watch them shopping, especially the young women. Pointing out an oil lamp candle to a girlfriend, exclaiming together over a glitz-studded handbag. And something inside her would swell and ache like bruised skin. God knew she wanted a friend like that more than anything else in the world, someone as close as a sister—

Stop it, Paige.

She lowered her chin and gazed at her feet. Slowly she turned away from the lake and town.

B. Rachel, age 6. This is the reader’s introduction to Rachel. Now some of Rachel’s problems are obvious to Rachel. She’s abused (#3--treated unjustly) and thrust into danger (#5). But because of the abuse, Rachel wraps herself in a protective cocoon by pretending she doesn’t care. In the short term this helps her survive, and that survival is all she focuses on in this scene. But in the long term, this can be very destructive because it’s thrusting her anger and sense of injustice deep down inside her—and it’s bound to come out sooner or later. Plus even in the short term it doesn’t completely work. I wanted the reader to see all of this, even as Rachel does not. (After all, she’s only six.) And—although approach #3 is strong here—I wanted to end the scene with #10 being prominent.
She has spilled sugar on the floor.

Seven-year-old Rachel Brandt stares at the white mess. What’s she going to do? Her mommy’s down the hall asleep on her bed. It’s the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday. She stayed up with those people all Friday night, laughing and drinking and sniffing white powder stuff up her nose. The noise kept Rachel awake. She cleaned up the messes from the party this morning, but she’s just hit the bag of sugar when she went to put way a plate and now the bag is on the floor, and sugar’s everywhere, and her mommy will be mad. Mommy will hit her for sure. And in three days, on February 24, it’s Rachel’s birthday. What if Mommy won’t buy her a present like she promised?

Well. So what?

Rachel shakes her head, making her long bangs bounce against her eyes. I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care. So what if Mommy hits her? It’s nothing new.

Rachel puts a hand on her hip, fingers sticking into her flesh. Maybe if she pushes them deep enough, she’ll make a little hole through her skin, right to her bones. And maybe that will hurt enough so if Mommy beats her, she can think about her hip and won’t feel the slaps as much.

She pushes her fingers in harder. Her hip begins to hurt. Too much. Rachel pulls her fingers away.

She stares at the spilled sugar. After a minute she puts the look on her face that her mommy calls “defiant.” She’s not sure what defiant means, but it must have something to do with her mouth feeling tight and her eyes getting slitty. Her muscles go hard, like to protect her body and her heart. Then suddenly all the hardness goes away, and she feels empty and cold and caring again. Caring that Mommy’s blue eyes will look at Rachel with hate, and her cheekbones will stick out even more, and she’ll hiss like a cat. Then she’ll raise her arm and start slapping …

Rachel bites her lip and looks at the sugar mess. She needs to fix this—quick.

Bending over, she yanks up the pink sugar bag. Plops it on the counter, far back from the edge. Then turns toward the sink and grabs the sponge. She wets it and gets down on her hands and knees, picking up sugar. When the sponge is full, she rinses it and pulls it across the floor again. She does this two more times.

She hears a sound from down the hall. A squeak from Mommy’s bed.

Rachel’s heart beats harder. There’s a lot of sugar to clean, and she better get it all. Stay asleep, Mommy, stay asleep. She works faster, her mouth open so she can breathe all the air she needs, because suddenly she’s feeling like she needs a lot.

More squeaks.

Rachel hears a bad word. Feet hitting bare floor.


Maybe her mommy will lie down again. Fall over on the bed like she does after she takes the drugs. Then Rachel will have time to clean up the mess, and Mommy will never know. Maybe she’ll even have time to do something else for Mommy, like throw away old food in the refrigerator and clean the stove …

A moan.

Uh-oh. Mommy has one of her “after party” headaches.

And the headaches make her mean.

Go, Rachel, go! She tries to work faster. But her eyes burn and the world goes blurry and she can’t see. The floor feels hard on her knees, and the smell of dirty sponge makes her feel kind of sick. Her breath comes in little puffs as she wipes the floor, shoves to her feet and rinses the sponge. Back down again. Clean more sugar … back on her feet to rinse … down again.

The feet are walking. Down the hall, toward the kitchen.

No, no, no.

Rachel starts to make noises in her throat—noises she doesn’t want to make but can’t help. Hearing them only makes her more scared. Because now she knows what’s going to happen, and she’s caring so very much that she can’t even find her defiant face. Her hand shakes, and she shoves the sponge back and forth, trying to find every little piece of sugar, knowing she’ll never get it all.

What are you doing?” Mommy spits the words.

Rachel’s skin goes burning cold, like when you put a wet finger on ice and can’t let go. She opens her mouth but can’t make a sound.

“Rachel! I’m talking to you!”

Rachel’s chest gets tight. She wants to keep her back toward Mommy to hide what she’s doing, but then she won’t know if a hand’s coming down …

She moves around on her knees, her fingers tight on the icky, smelly sponge. Mommy’s hands are at the sides of her head. Her T-shirt has a purple stain on it. Her white-blonde hair sticks out like straw, and her cheeks look gray. She makes a bad face at Rachel.

Rachel wishes she were small like an ant so she could run away. “I’m just cleaning the floor.”

Her mommy makes a noise like that dog did last year when it bit Rachel, and Mommy’s boyfriend with the ponytail laughed because Rachel cried so hard, and she vowed she’d never cry again. “Why’d you pour sugar on it?”

Rachel pulls back, her heart going real hard. “I–I didn’t pour it. It just spilled.”

“All by itself?”

“No, it—”

“Don’t lie to me, girl. Ever. You know what I have to do when you lie to me.”


“Nobody in this world loves you but your mommy.” She points a finger at Rachel, the red nail polish chipped mostly off. Her voice gets louder. “I won’t let you be a bad kid. I have to teach you right in this world.”

“I already—”

Mommy moves so fast, Rachel doesn’t have time to run. Her arm is yanked up—hard. Her head jerks back and her teeth hit together. Mommy pulls Rachel to her feet, the nails biting into her skin. Mommy’s arm goes back, her fingers spread.

The slaps come. They hurt. Rachel wants to cry but she won’t. She looks down inside herself, real deep, and pulls up her defiant face. The hard mouth and the slitty eyes. She will not cry.

Mommy hits again. And again. Pain rips at Rachel. But she doesn’t care. She doesn’t.

Not caring takes the hurt away.

Just a little.

See the difference between the two uses of #10? I should add that the age difference between these characters isn’t the only thing that makes for these variations. An adult can be just as clueless about an inner struggle as a kid.

Well, we did it! This wraps up our series, BGs. Hope it's helped. If you have follow-up questions, please leave them today.


Domino said...

Thanks for the great teaching. Every time I learn more, I get that same feeling a girl gets when she's on a diet and has to wear her belt one notch tighter.

I feel like I'm getting somewhere with this.


C.J. Darlington said...

Definitely, thanks very much Brandilyn for sharing this great stuff. And I loved the sneak peak at Violet Dawn.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

I would ask a few more questions about other stuff in Violet Dawn, but I don't want to give anything away, so I'll let it wait until much later!

No more questions just big cudos on a lesson well-taught! :-)

Anonymous said...

Okay, another question from the newbie :). Everyone, bear with me as I get caught up on all this great teaching and beat a dead horse, so to speak.

When you taught about character desires, Brandilyn, you said rather than prop up a sagging middle with a new development, keep the pace high and the writing tight from the beginning so the middle doesn't sag. Right? And to do this, know your character's desire and motivation clearly. Conflict arises as characters with opposing desires interact and -- whammo, your plot creates itself. Character desires can flow from the character empathy points. Did I get that right?

BTW, I so loved the piece of Violet Dawn you shared. Rachel about ripped my heart out, though.

A thousand thanks for what you do for us here. You're awesome!

michael snyder said...

This has been good stuff, Brandilyn. And for those of you who haven't read Getting Into Character yet....shame, shame, shame (uttered in fluent Gomer Pyle-ese).

Lynette Sowell said...

This is one series of posts I'll need to read and re-read. You've taken that elusive "it" quality that editors and readers crave, and made "it" seem easier to reach or at least define. Although we still really don't know what "it" is. :) ~ Lynette

Flo Moyer said...

I've had 8 books published, and I learned much from this series on character. Thank you so much.
Flo Moyer
w/a Hayley Gardner