When writers think about the tools of our trade, our thoughts might understandably go to craft: words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice. Characters, plot, setting, tense. Point of view, goal/motivation/conflict, dialogue, pace. And yes – all these things all need to be taken into account, all these things and more.
But I’d like to add to the list something that I consider to be an essential character development tool: empathy.
Dictionary.com defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”
Film critic Roger Ebert once described movies as being empathy machines. I think the same thing can be said of books, because at the foundation, isn’t every great reading experience one where we temporarily abandon our sense of self so we can vicariously experience life from another point of view?
By the time I graduated from high school, I’d spent thousands of hours in fictional characters’ heads, considering someone else’s perspective, and the more unlike me the character was, the more fascinated I was…about the staggering breadth of the human experience, about the possibilities of the world outside my rural hometown, and about the place I wanted to make for myself in that world.
So this might explain why I feel a strong attraction to, and a strange affinity for, so-called “unlikeable characters”, and to fictional villains in particular. What intriguing psychological ground! What makes a villain tick? What secret pain does he or she hide?
I didn’t realize this affinity might be a marketable skill until I was in college, when a psychology professor suggested I consider a career in criminal psychology. “You have an unusual capacity for suspending judgment.” I didn’t end up interviewing with the FBI, but in retrospect, I think this sense of psychological curiosity came from a very obvious place.
From READING – and having free-ranged the adult library stacks from age ten, I’d met perhaps more than my fair share of dubious fictional characters.
Which brings me to writing, and to empathy.
They say that a villain is the hero of his or her own story. He or she thinks they’re doing a good thing, the obvious thing, for very good reasons. When writing villains, we need to understand those reasons. Judgment and mental distance is a luxury we simply can’t afford, not if we’re going to do that character justice on the page. To get at a villain’s true goals, motivations, and conflicts, and to write from their point of view with any sense of authenticity, we have to dig deep, put aside our personal value systems, and try to find some common ground, some shared humanity, in what can be pretty unsavory psychological territory.
We need to be brave enough to engage our empathy machines…at least temporarily.
It can be very challenging to explore the inner lives of characters who might be very, very different than ourselves – REAL people, three-dimensional people, flawed people who both frighten and fascinate. Though it’s a tool that always needs honing, I find a well-developed sense of empathy to be a very handy tool to have around.
What are your thoughts on books as empathy machines, and the concept of empathy as an essential tool in a writer’s toolkit? Who are some of your favorite villains, and why? Please weigh in.
…who still receives letters from readers expressing both delight and dismay about Stephen, the villain in my 2011 release, TASTE ME – including questions about when I’m going to write “his” book!
Composite image by stockimages/KROMKRATHOG at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
At the recent RWA national conference in San Antonio, one very simple tip from best-selling YA author Ally Carter almost tipped me out of my chair. I noticed other workshop attendees’ faces lighting up at the same time. (They were reacting to what Ally said, not to me falling out of my chair. Just thought I’d clarify that…)
What did Ally say that was so profound to me? When it comes to plot and premise “Don’t start a book till you have both.”
It makes perfect sense, right? Without a plot to drive your premise, your story will limp around in circles. At that moment, I realized I’d started most of my books with only the premise in mind and let the plot “magically” work itself out later. This is why I often get to a certain point in a manuscript and think:
I also realized I’d been using the terms plot and premise interchangeably. What’s the difference? I’ll fall back on Back to the Future, one of my favourite movies, to illustrate this.
Premise – The basic idea or hook. Think of it as the tagline you’d give if someone asked you what your story is about. Back to the Future’s premise? A teenager accidentally travels back to the year 1955 in a time machine built out of a DeLorean.
Plot – The plot is what happens in the story, a sequence of events and problems your main character faces. A book can have a main plot plus one or more subplots that intersect the main plot. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly must return to 1985, but his DeLorean is out of fuel and only 1.21 gigawatts of power can send it back to the future. In a subplot, Marty encounters his parents as high school seniors. He has to make sure they fall in love, otherwise he and his siblings may not be born in the future.
Want to know more about plotting? Go back in time and check out these excellent posts from the Sisterhood’s past:
A writer looking out the window is a writer at work. A writer sitting on a bench eavesdropping on a conversation is a writer at work. Even a writer crammed into a tiny, cluttered space searching the internet while a cat wiggles his way into more and more of her chair is a writer at work—as you can see. The list of things writers do that others see as wasting time or daydreaming is endless.
However, sometimes, even for writers, daydreaming is just daydreaming.
This is a healthy thing. It’s a broom that sweeps all the cobwebs and mind-clutter away, opening the space, banishing the musty, and letting in new and fresh possibilities. It’s also a time for the great What if and to ponder theWhy of whatever strikes your fancy.
It was in this state I started watching this season of Dancing with the Stars.
Words are like a living entity, with the incredible ability to spread on their own. And partnered with today’s technology their range and speed are vast. They have the power to influence one, or many, and in doing so change the world. They have the potential to span centuries and thus persuade or motivate generations.
Think about that, because as an author that colossal sovereignty comes through you. What a huge responsibility.
As authors, we spend considerable periods of time thinking about our characters and plot. Then we write. After which, we layer in emotions, senses and setting details. And of course, there is the endless tweaking of dialogue, sentence structure, hooks and much more. However, have you consider the message of your story?
I love to learn new things when I read, and I believe my readers do too. My all-time favorite book is Jean M. Auel’s Valley Of The Horses. Yes. It is a romance, at least it is to me. A beautiful love story. The novel’s setting is the primeval world. I applauded Miss Auel for her research. I can’t imagine the years she spent doing the work. While reading, I learned tons about herbs and ordinary plants and their therapeutic uses. I also learned a valuable safe aid tips, not to mention I discovered a fantasying past world.
In my romantic suspense stories, I’ve embedded true crime cases and safety tips in hopes my readers take heed and share the pointers, because one day my message might just save them from harm. Each of my contemporary novels contain messages relating to honesty with one’s self, strength of character and of family the their importance. My readers have responded positively to my messages in their reviews.
We have the power to change others’ lives-save lives. We can change people’s perception of themselves, help them understand a different person’s perspective or perhaps handle a stressful, urgent situation in a much better way than they would’ve. We can change their beliefs about history, people, the world or the future. We can spur them to take action for a cause. When their life changes, they remember you.
Great stories share information as well as entertain. What is the knowledge that you want to share for the Greater Good with your readers?
Blockbuster Movies show it, Platinum Records praise it, great literature lauds it…every living soul searches for it. Good grief, Carrie Twines’ livelihood depends on it. Everyone in Black Moose, Vermont seems to be in love or in hot pursuit of it. Their bliss only reminds Carrie of what she lost as a teen when two geeky best friends became first loves—until heartache sent them on different paths.
Carrie returns to Black Moose to emerge from the shadows of her parents’ stardom and find a normal life, love and family, but the odds are stacked against her. However, her luck is about to change. As she contemplates the merits of spinsterhood, a game of chance brings her back to the man she’d walked away from years ago. He’s even more kind and sexy than he was fourteen years ago, but can she trust him with her heart again?
Luke McQuire is a man with two things on his mind: building his electrical business and evading the town diva, Olive Ann. But when Carrie shows up again like a lucky penny, he’s got more to think about—including why she left him in the first place. He’s a damn good electrician, but can he make sparks fly with the one woman he wants—the one woman who was able to resist him?
Readers loved PERFECT, and the rib-tickling, warm fuzzy feelings continue in PERFECT HEARTS.
Okay, I admit it; I am a Science Fiction geek, and I loved Farscape. The whole premise excited my imagination —which is normal, considering I write futuristic Sci-Fi Romance when not dealing with lords and ladies. However, as much as I enjoyed the show, it’s the beginning—available in the music video above—that really spoke to me.
“Look, I can’t be your kind of hero.”
“No, you can’t be. But each man gets the chance to be his own kind of hero. Your time’ll come, and when it does, watch out. Chances are, it’ll be the last thing you ever expected.”
Nobody wakes up one morning and says, “I’m going to be a hero today.” Heroism tends to be the product of unforeseen events, unplanned incursions of circumstance, or simple happenstance (being in the right place at the right time). When any of those things occur, ready or not, the truth of a person’s character is revealed. There is no time for prevarication, dissembling, or projecting the desired image. There is only now. And a hero does what the now demands without regard for anything—or anyone—else.
In the now, a true hero has but one goal: Save the maiden. Rescue the colonists. Protect those within the fort. Brave the fire. Face the bullet. Find the threat and eliminate it—or die trying.
Heroism is about risk. Whether that risk is physical, psychological, or emotional is irrelevant. Whatever the root, the perception must be one of threat or danger.
Heroes put themselves in harm’s way for others. Were there a handbook for heroes, that would be Chapter One.
As writers, we write all kinds of heroes, and in doing so, must escalate the risk, elevate an ordinary man to heroic heights. How much is our hero willing to give? What is he willing to lose? His life? His heart? His beliefs? To be a hero, he must be willing to disregard something he believes necessary to his existence. The numismatist who has dedicated everything to procuring a unique coin only to sacrifice it to ransom a kidnapped child, or the accountant who, despite fears of professional suicide, ferrets out the truth about his crooked boss so the innocent bookkeeper won’t go to jail is just as much hero as the brawny Scot swinging his bloodied claymore to defend the lady he is sworn to protect.
It’s how we write him that gives him his chance to be his own type of hero.
Of course, most of us would prefer the brawny Scot—at least between the covers (that’s book covers, ladies). Still, the most unassuming person, given the right circumstances, can be a hero, while those to whom our perception ascribes innate heroism can turn tail and run.
Along those lines, the first movie that comes to mind is The Incredible Mr. Limpet—which could easily be subtitled Casper Milquetoast Saves the World. No, I’m not kidding, and here’s the original movie trailer so you can see for yourself.
Among types of heroes, one can’t forget the unwilling hero, thrust into a situation better avoided but doing what’s necessary because there’s no alternative. Atticus Finch is a good example of an unwilling hero. A quiet man, he goes about his life without raising much dust until he’s forced to choose between his preferences and his principles. Principles win, and as a result, he, his daughter, and his entire community discover his innate strength, courage, and conviction.
Then there’s the anti-hero, cynical and self-serving, forced by circumstance to do the right thing. Rhett Butler anyone?
There are other types of heroes, of course, but I’ll let you fill in the blanks while I give you one more video. (You really didn’t think you’d get away without something historical did you?)
Now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite type of hero? Alphas? Betas? Gammas? What do you think makes a good hero? Have you ever read a book with an unexpected type of hero? Is there any one thing that makes you fall in love with a fictional hero? Do you have a favorite hero? Anything you want to share about heroes, feel free. Let’s celebrate heroes!
If you’re a parent, you’re probably familiar with growth charts. You know–those graphs that show how your child’s height or weight or head circumference compares to the averages based on her age. After staring at way too many of these graphs, something occurred to me. My development as a writer wasn’t too different from the way my baby’s head was growing.
I started in the rapid-growth phase. With every chapter I wrote, my skill set noticeably improved. Simple changes, like writing my synopsis before I started the manuscript, so that I’d have a road map to follow, had the power to jump start my productivity and manuscript quality. The wonderful thing about this phase was that the rejections didn’t sting too much. By the time an editor told me they didn’t want manuscript A, manuscript B was finished, and it was so much better, I couldn’t believe I’d ever thought A was publication quality.
Then, one day, I finished a manuscript that wasn’t much better than the one before it.
I first met Sherry Isaac at Margie Lawson’s Immersion Master Class where 7 writers were corralled at Margie’s mountside home in Colorado for a week of 10+ hour days of writing and critiquing and learning. It was an amazing experience and I recommend Margie’s classes to everyone! I hope to find an Immersion Master Class II to attend soon.
Within a few hours of meeting Sherry I adored her. She is one of those easy-going, fun-loving, warm individuals who can make you feel like you’ve known them forever. Within a day of meeting her I was awed by the breadth of her writing ability.
Sherry is an amazing author and an even better friend. Her first collection of shorts, STORYTELLER, debuted last month, July 2011.
THE LONG & SHORT OF THE SHORT & SWEET
My introduction to short stories was typical: high school English. No, I will not tell you how long ago that was, except to say that it wasn’t so long ago that I can’t remember my inaugural short, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe’s beat-by-beat unravelling of a guilty man’s mind is still my favorite. And what kind of a Canadian would I be if I’d never read Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro? (Gasp!)
Not once did I ever think I’d write short stories.
Novels were my love. When I admitted out loud that I was a writer and gave in to the craft, novels were my goal.
Lots and lots and lots of novels. Novels were what I read, novels were what I loved. Novels! I didn’t read short stories, not by choice anyway (exception: Poe, above). If I didn’t read them, why would I write them? First of all, my experience was limited–a twist on the old, write what you know advice. Second, short stories were, well, short.
For someone like me, who doesn’t know when to shut up, short story writing isn’t a very appealing venue.
Plus, I like to ramble.
Tom Hank’s character in A League of Their Own said ‘There’s no crying in baseball’.
And there is no rambling in short stories.
Because there’s no room.
Obvious, I know, but there you have it. Short stories are, by definition, short. And as Brian Henry, Editor and Creative Writing instructor teaches, “the length imposes certain restrictions”.
Shorter story, lesser word count. Easy peasy, right?
There is a quote, several versions, actually, attributed to Voltaire, Mark Twain and Blaise Pascal. “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I’ve written a long one instead.”
Ask any advertising executive. Telling a full and compelling story in few words is a challenge.
If a novel is a cross-country trip on The Partridge Family bus, then a short story is a hop to the next town in a Mini Cooper. A short story, like a novel, has a starting point, a destination, and if you’re a plotter rather than a pantster, a map in the glovebox telling you how to get there–or a destination plugged into the GPS.
When the venue for your tale is a short story, you don’t have a lot of time. Or a lot of trunk space. You can’t pack all your favorite plots and subplots. One change of underwear, one clean shirt, one crisp dollar bill for the toll.
You can’t stop along the way to pick up friends. Extra characters complicate things. They can’t help it, that’s what they do. The “aim” of a short story is “to achieve”–once again I channel Brian Henry–”a single, concentrated effect”.
Throw a few friends in the Cooper and someone will want to drive. Someone will want to stop for souvenirs, another will need a bathroom break. The guy in the back seat will get queasy and ask you to pull over. All these complications are great in a novel but in a short story they take up space. Space you don’t have.
Just as you can’t stop and pick up friends on the way to your destination, you can’t stop for Kodak moments or take the scenic route. Grand descriptions take up word count. The prose has to be tight. Get on the highway. Get in the fast lane. Get to the end in 10,000 words, 5,000 words, 3,000 words. Or less.
One plot, often one character, not a lot of description to slow the story down. All of this means focus.
Short word count, short description, short list of characters. What else?
In novels, the author may slow down time in order to accommodate or enrich all of the layers in a story. A couple from different cultures need to fall in love, and that doesn’t happen over night. An ordinary housewife vows to save the world from rising gas prices, but first she must overcome her fear public transit. Who amongst us hasn’t rounded the corner on time only to watch the black plume of exhaust because the bus showed up early? There won’t be another #12 to the city for 17 more minutes.
To avoid these pitfalls in a short story, it’s best to keep the plot’s time frame short as well as focused.
Clamp down on the description, the build up, the gas. Does this mean a short story should be fast paced? Not at all, and most are not.
Short stories tend to be character driven. A choice, a trial, a internal change the character needs to make.
One plot, one character, one turning point.
Tell your short story right, and you just might be on the short list for literary greatness.
Winner of The Alice Munro Short Story Award, Sherry Isaac’s tales of life, love and forgiveness that transcend all things, including the grave, appear online and in print. Her first collection of shorts, Storyteller, debuts July 2011. For more information, or to order an autographed copy, click HERE.