Monday, September 26, 2011

Empathy and Characterization

I've been thinking a lot about how emotion is a kind of a dance between two (or more) people. A quick story- My daughter was in a bike accident last week (she was going pretty fast and slid on some wet grass and fell on a driveway.)

She was in a lot of pain, but I had a job to do- get my daughter cleaned up enough that we could go to the critical care center for x-rays. My heart was pounding, and my thoughts were a little jumpy, but I was okay. (You didn't think this was about my daughter, did you? No, this story is all about me! ;) Then I stopped at my friend's house to drop off my 4 year-old so I could concentrate on Emma. When she came to the door, I started to explain what had happened and could she please watch Jojo for me?

I could hardly get through the explanation. I started bawling, and all of the fear that I hadn't wanted to show my daughter came out with my friend. After a  moment I pulled it together, and Emma and I made it to the CCC, where my husband met us. Emma is okay, in fact the last big piece of scab peeled off her face last night, so she doesn't feel like such a freak. (I think I could have said she was mauled by a bear and that would have made sense to people looking at her. Her left hand is still wrapped up, but she can *carefully* hold a pencil again.)

Anyway, this experience with my friend reminded me that emotions don't occur in a vacuum. Emotions are usually between a person and someone or something else.

Anger- at what?
Love- for whom?
Jealousy- over what?
Happiness- this one is a little harder, but I think that many times when I'm happy, I feel that I've been transported back to an earlier happiness. For instance, whenever I go out on a boat, it reminds me of the times I've gone out on a boat with my family growing up, and I feel a sense of well-being and closeness, to my dad especially, that I don't feel in other situations. Even if he's not there.

As writers, we're told to use relationships and other people's reactions to reveal our main character and make them come alive. I'm just wondering if the reason for that is deeper than a good writing device- is it because that's how we experience the world? Can you really expereince emotions without putting them in the context of a relationship?

Even when I'm alone, my emotions are focused on what I think someone's reaction will be. For instance, say I'm fixing dinner. A script will run through my mind of the last time we had chicken pot pie, how everybody thanked me, those delicious groans as they took their firsts bites. As I predict their gratitude, I happily get to work.

What do you think of my very non-scientific observations? Can emotions exist without a foil?


  1. So good, Kelly! I think you're absolutely right--it's a matter of setting and who's in the scene, of memories, a whole mixture of things. This is why I think it's so impossible to get books "right!" It's so hard to get deep enough! But we keep trying. ;)

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  2. Ouch! I'm glad Emma is okay.

    I agree about the power of emotional memories and our reactions as we write about our characters. If any of your characters are in a boat scene with their family, you can relate to the experience and how they will react to their outing. :)

  3. Hey Amy and Jen- Thanks for the comments:) It is a tricky thing to make the reader feel what you want them to feel. I'm glad to have you guys to bounce ideas off of!