Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In re Empathy

ECU's Mock Trial Team is wrestling with a first-degree murder case this season. The students assume attorney and witness roles for the prosecution and defense in a fictional, 357 page case, sans addenda, that's chock-full of twists, reasonable doubt, and evidence--LOTS of evidence.

As a coach, I am duty-bound to help a student-witness enter a character's life--so that she understands the person so deeply that she becomes that person. Her role surpasses cheap acting or bathos. This is a nation-wide competition, and the team will compete with the "best." But, more importantly, a student learns to understand another's choices or lack of choices. In short, she practices empathy.

I tell a student (ad nauseum) that the jury must "feel and believe your story." You must live, eat, and breathe every facet of that person's life. The "witness" isn't a witness. She's a human being. She's a second victim. She's hurting. Or, maybe she's pleased with herself (her role as accessory--obtaining the date-rape drug for the Defendant is "no biggie"). What would she do? What would she say? How can you make her sympathetic? Make her real.

So, last week, I had a moment. I sat in the office, staring down a WIP and realized that I don't follow my own advice. I try. But, I'd committed a reckless failure to "empathize" with the protag. (done without malice aforethought, but still...). Then I got over myself, opened a blank page, and remembered that writing is an act of crafting argument, after argument, after argument, persuading the reader by offering evidence, so that she'll draw the conclusions about the character and her journey. The evidence must be believable. Or else, a reader, advisor, (or jury) won't buy it.

How do you choose the evidence (during revision) that best showcases your character? How much evidence does your reader need? How do you step into your character's skin (without committing battery)? Share your Getting-to-Know-Your-Character exercises.

BTW, Happy Book Birthday to Anne Ursu's novel, Breadcrumbs! Go, Anne! :0)

This post is adjourned...


  1. Oooo. I like that offering evidence metaphor. I get to know characters through a lot of freewriting. I rely on writing prompts from various books and classes because I don't want the pressure of having to come up with the prompt and respond to it. That would feel too much like asking questions I already know.

  2. Ah, Mellisa, the million dollar question, the pot of gold. A thought-provoking post. Marsha Qualey gave a terrific presentation on character development at our Spokane conference and put the audience into small groups to brainstorm everything from settings to the parents' backstory. When the groups presented, it was the most specific details that resonated - living in a doublewide trailer, the name of the horse, how the parents met.

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  4. Of course, the trial team reminded me of the metaphor, which is similar to ones that Jane and others have passed on. This issue is driving me batty (and causing unnecessary gray hair). When are details too distracting? Arguably, we should use concrete details, yet by doing so we alert our readers that the detail or character or place, etc. is important--even when he/she/it may not be. I can't believe I'm about to ask this question, but maybe other students and writers have the same one: Is it "legit." to provide enough details to build the story world--specific enough to give the reader a sense of place, character, etc. without that detail then being integral to the story? For example, if I mention the name of a restaurant or a character in the first 20 or so pages, must that place or person reappear later? I know "extras" and "props" don't serve a story, and I'm an uber-fan of double duty details. But must every detail serve a double duty? Oh, and I'm so past the "whatever serves your story" and "there are no rules" answers. Can a concrete detail exist for world-building purposes only? Can I name a character, who represents the town, for example, without calling him "neighbor?" And if I do so, is it distracting to the reader? Is it possible to use concrete detail to the story's detriment?

    And why is revision so hard? Yes, someone please address the hard-ness, the gray-hair growing, the head in palm-ness of revision that also leads to that good feeling some days, too. Please. And, as always, thank you.

  5. p.s. I'm totally not this obnoxious or manic or query-driven most days. :0) All those questions are meant for discussion and not because I'm searching for clear answers (unclear ones will do) or formulas. Just curious, is all... And, again, thank you. :0)