Saturday, January 19, 2008

Vunerable Characters

Ok, this is so freaking cool!!! I picked this up by watching Mythbusters and I got an insight on characters.

Humans are an interesting breed. We try so hard to remain strong and courageous, facing danger with not even a blink of an eye. Yet we are like rag dolls, tossed around by circumstances. We build up defenses, protecting our tiny selves from each other, when we are all the same.

I was watching Mythbusters today and the group tested the Chinese Water Torture to see if it was true, that the victim would break with only a few drops of water. So a young girl named Kari underwent the procedure. Her friends strapped her to a rack with her arms tied over her head, then her feet held down by chains. They opened a water valve which allowed drops of water to drip on her forehead. A paramedic and her friends stood beside her, ensuring her safety. After an hour, she broke down and wept, regretting that she agreed to do the stunt. But right away, she composed herself. After another half an hour, the crew untied her shackles, saying she was done. In an interview, she admitted she was ashamed she panicked and cried.

Now for the interesting part. We, as humans, use our own strength as a security blanket. God forbid if we should cry or admit we are afraid. So we bring the same blankey over into our characters. God forbid if Alice Smith, the heroine of our latest work, should cry when she's afraid or when she's angry. We have no problem allowing Alice to throw a temper tantrum or squeal in the fits of sexual passion, but never allow her to cross that almighty line of fear or vulnerability. So we keep her and ourselves far from this cursed chasm, never allowing ourselves or them to step into illicit territory. Even the word itself, say it - VULNERABILITY - makes us cringe. It means exposed, weakness, open, defenselessness, susceptible, helplessness, in a weak position. Everything we fear. The very idea of being helpless and depending on someone else to save us scares the very breath from our lungs. Shiver!! What if they don't show up and save me, what if they laugh at me, what if they think badly of me because I'm not strong enough to bare the load? Too many questions with no answers.

But to see Kari weep as her hands were held over head gave me a sense of pity for her and made her human, someone who needed rescuing. I cared for her. In the same sense when we allow Alice to travel over that border into the Land of Vulnerability, we create a sense of pity that echoes from the pages. Readers care about her, long to see her win and their eyes search the horizon for the knight in shining armor to save the damsel in distress.

Unfortunately, society has taught humans that tears equate weakness and weakness is bad. One must be strong. Kari felt ashamed that she broke down and cried. She snorted in disgust as if she had broke an unwritten law. That law resonates through us and controls our lives as well as our characters' lives. The unwritten rule: Thou shall not weep. So we hold Alice together for if one judges Alice, they judge the writer. Alice is, in a sense, the extension of the writer, a part of her soul.

What we forget is that weeping in the face of fear means we are just like the rest of the people crawling upon the face of this space rock. We are human. We all weep when we are afraid, either in the presence of others or in the safety of our own rooms. That's what brings the character home, makes you feel sorry for her, just as my heart broke for poor Kari. I would do the same thing in the same situation; I understand Kari and can relate to her fears. She has taken a step towards me, creating a sense of intimacy. I feel I know her just a little bit more, she is human just as I am.

How do we get Alice to cross that gorge into intimacy? By giving her permission. Just make sure it fits the scene. Crying over losing her keys might seem over the top, but crying because the lost keys broke the camel's back is appropriate. Example: Alice loses her job, her husband leaves her, the bank is foreclosing the house and then she lost her keys. Perfect time to let her ride the tides of tears. I've read so many books where the heroine is a emotionally and physically strong Zena, who never sheds a tear. She is strong in the face of turmoil even when her family is killed, her house burned to the ground and the enemy tortures her for five days straight. Now come on!! Who would still be strong after those circumstances? No one I know. Even after one hour and a half, her arms and legs released and sitting in a chair with her friends surrounding her and paramedics close at hand, Kari still suffered the effects of her "torture". Her eyes beheld her emotions. When the crew first strapped her to the rack, her eyes were strong, flat, ready. After, her eyes held a fear that she tried to reign in but couldn't. She was clearly shaken. A doctor trained in helping tortured victims sat across from her. I could tell he was concerned for her, his eyes never leaving her face and his body posture was very stiff as if he waited for her words to tumble from her.

Mark Bertrand said it best: "How do you create sympathetic characters? I think it might be as simple as placing the character in a situation of some sort, then giving her a reaction the reader would share. An internal reaction may be enough -- for example, your character sees a panhandler and goes through the familiar "I want to help but what if they use my money to buy drugs?" response. We've all been there, so we can sympathize. Now, if she overrules her natural disinclination and actually helps, that goes a step further. Not only is she reacting as the reader does, but she's doing what the reader wishes she herself would."

So why not bring these same emotions into our characters? Why not tap into those feelings and thoughts of being trapped and alone? Why? Because the thought of Zena weeping as she describes her torture scares us more than the torture itself. The very idea of allowing vulnerability and our true selves exposed to the world is more terrifying that facing Freddy Krueger in a cemetery. But once we allow Alice to reach that point of exposure will also allow the reader to journey with her. The reader now cares for Alice just as I cared for Kari. The reader longs to see Alice saved by the handsome knight, just as I longed to see the brave paramedic lift Kari from the rack. So strap Alice to the rack of emotions, allow her to face her fears and give her the luxury of weeping. You'll see the outcomes, a character everyone cares for instead of a dull and flat Zena.

Be blessed in your writing,


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