Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Empathy and Characterization

Sometimes I think bringing characters to life so that readers empathize with them is the hardest feat in literature. Other times I think it's deceptively easy. It seems to me that readers want to be drawn into stories, want to identify with characters, want to fill gaps left by storytellers. I think our brains are hard-wired for it. All a writer has to do is meet us half way.

I got an inkling of that in Mom's Cancer when I received e-mails from readers saying that although they'd gone through completely different events with entirely different people, it was as if I'd been spying on their lives. None of the details were the same, yet somehow the overall story was true. They reconciled the differences ("Gee, except for the mother, the son, the daughters and the disease, this is just like us!") and, in a very real sense, became participants in the story.

(Incidentally, that's one reason my editor and I decided not to put a family photo on the back cover of Mom's Cancer. As cartoon characters, we were abstract representations--mother, son, daughters--that readers could map to their own lives. We thought showing our real selves might break that spell.)

Any time a book, song, poem, movie, television program makes me feel something, I try to go back and dissect how it did it. With respect to cartooning, I'm especially interested and impressed when I'm moved economically, with a minimum of words and pictures. I think this is a skill at which Charles Schulz, for example, excelled: within a few panels we not only knew a character but cared about him. I'm still trying to figure out how that magic trick works. Some examples from different media:

Example 1: Here's the very first Calvin & Hobbes comic strip by Bill Watterson:

Those four panels deliver a lot. Not only do you immediately get to know and like Calvin, his father, and Hobbes, but you're also dumped into Calvin's first pith-helmeted adventure. You want to find out what happens next. And it's funny! One of the great things that Watterson did very well was design his strip and premise so that a new reader could walk into it almost anywhere and very quickly understand the characters and their relationships.

Example 2: I recently heard the Gordon Lightfoot song "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," in which a lyric goes:

When suppertime came the old cook came on deck
Saying "Fellas it's too rough to feed you."
At seven p.m. a main hatchway caved in,
He said, "Fellas it's been good to know you."

Lightfoot doesn't tell us the old cook's name or what he looks like. But can't you just see him? Don't you care about what happens to him? In less than three dozen words, Lightfoot painted a portrait of a steadfast seaman who worked below decks all his life, did his job through a lot of close scrapes, and now faces his perhaps not unexpected fate with calm courage and wit (and see how that's the content I bring to the song as the listener?). I love the old cook, and I don't think the song would be half as effective or haunting without him.

Example 3: Luxo Jr. is a character in one of Pixar's earliest movies, a 1986 short film that marked John Lasseter's directorial debut. Meant partly to show off the capabilities of that new-fangled computer animation, the film has no dialogue yet still conveys a charming story about young desk lamp Luxo Jr. and his patient father (Luxo Sr., I suppose). Through their movement, interaction, and body language, they tell a touching tale with no words at all. The picture below is of literally nothing but two desk lamps shining on each other, but even without animation it very effectively conveys emotion and personality. We, the viewers, give it meaning.

Example 4: There's a possibly apocryphal story of Ernest Hemingway boasting in a bar that he could write a novel in six words. The challenge accepted, Hemingway penned:

Baby shoes for sale, never used.

Now, I won't quibble over whether that constitutes a novel. But as a lesson in immediately and economically drawing readers into a story and inviting them to fill in the blanks with details from their own lives, I don't know of better.

The trick is figuring out how to do it at will instead of maybe accidentally tripping over it once in a while.



R said...

Hmm...wish I knew how to do that properly; my (NaNoWriMo) stories would be so much better! :)

ronnie said...

Wonderful post on minimalism and the beauty of doing much while keeping things simple.

On a bulletin board next to my desk at work is a small piece of paper with "John 3:16" on it. That may seem very odd thing to find pinned next to the desk of a lapsed-fundamentalist-turned-atheist. However, the reason it's there has to do with something I read in an essay on writing a long, long time ago, the author of which, I regret, is lost to my memory. Discussing the dangers of verbosity, he cites John 3:16:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

and then said, "If John could explain the entire meaning of Christianity in 25 words, you can probably say what you're trying to with less."

I usually don't take his advice (cf this post). But I do try to keep it in mind - hence the note.


Namowal said...

I read somewhere that art, music and storytelling may be an early form of virtual reality. A good artist (or storyteller) pushes the right buttons in our heads and brings us into the picture. Makes sense to me. For example, I recall Treasure Island as an island romp with pirates and danger, instead of words on a page.