Saturday, May 8, 2010

Character empathy

As a writer, especially of fiction, one often has to call upon a certain chanelling of empathy for characters we create whose circumstances we would, in real life, not understand all too well. I don't know what it's like to be a young woman who deals with the threat of sexual abuse. I don't know what it's like to be a heroin addict, or a billionaire. But, I'll be damned if I'm going to let that stop me from using them as characters if the story calls for it.

So, that begs the question: How do you write convincingly about a perspective you haven't experienced, and possibly can't? Well, as with all art, a lot of inspiration comes from those who have come before us. Writers, lyricists, journalists; all develop a knack for putting themselves in another's shoes even if they'll never really wear them. I've never done much direct interviewing of people who serve as models for characters, but I definitely pay close attention when people talk about their life experiences. You never know when a conversation over a beer with a friend will provide elements of a character you're developing.

Melissa Dinardi, the 'heroine' of a novel I'm toying with, is a 23 year-old woman with major self-esteem issues and destructive tendencies. Yes, some of that is auto-biographical, but if it wasn't for some of the young women I've come to know over the years, she'd be kind of a pitiful character, rather than the resigned survivor she's going to be (once I've finished figuring out the story).

My inspiration for today's piece is listening to Drive-by Truckers' Decoration Day, which deals with consensual incest, being an indebted farmer, and generally the quirks of being from the American South. Very good lyrics allow for some middle-class Canadian boy to, hopefully, evoke what it's like. Or maybe it's all cliché... Let's see...

May 8, 2010

I'm in love with Cora McCool. She's a skinny wisp of a thing, been hurt harder and worse than I ever imagined a girl could be. I know what that Ames boy from across the county at Mr. Jackson's farm did to her on that cold night last October and he got away with it. Busted her jaw. Damn near broke her arm, definitely broke her heart. But she was too scared to accuse him, and that boy is too big, too nasty for the men to try and fight him down over it.

I wanted to take my Dad's shotgun and take that sonuvabitch behind the barn and show him what a man is by taking it away with a shell. But I can't. I'd be in jail, unable to help do the haying and Ma needs me here. She can't run the farm without me and we're so close to losing the damn thing anyway. So, Jack Ames, you get to hold on to your balls for now, boy, but it ain't gonna be long till justice comes a' calling on you, fucker.

My best friend Bill gets home from Iraq in a couple of months and he's got my back on this. Ain't no one gonna rat out a war hero. Me, I'm just some dumb redneck with flat feet and diabetes. No soldiering for me.

But I'm gonna marry Cora McCool soon enough, after I get a little more money saved up for a ring and a small ceremony with Reverend James reading one of those really pretty passages from the Bible that talks about how God makes all the hurt go away and green pastures and all that. Then Cora can move onto the farm, help Ma and me with the house, and maybe we'll have a baby... a little girl to keep her company while I get this farm growing a proper crop of soybeans again, before that asshle at the bank takes it all away.

And then, sweet Cora, maybe I'll be able to take away the hurt and save you.

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