Creating Sympathy for Characters with Unsympathetic Belifs

Monday, October 16, 2017


Our Mississippi River cruise spent a day at Vicksburg, Mississippi, where I visited two museums with steamboat displays as part of the research for my current work-in-progress. But the stop also had a second, unintended, result. During the 1863 siege of Vicksburg, the residents dug and lived in caves that served as bomb shelters. I had heard of the Vicksburg caves before, but the visit ignited my interest in writing a story about living in one. So that will probably be my next book.

Unfortunately, there were few, if any, abolitionists in Vicksburg at the time. I came up with several ideas of how I might make my character and her family secret abolitionists, but Roland wasn’t sure that even closet abolitionists existed in the deep South then. I’ll research it further, but if they didn’t, how do I make a character sympathetic when she condones slavery?

This isn’t an unusual situation for a writer to be in. Many stories start out with an unsympathetic protagonist, whose change in character or beliefs or even in situation is at the crux of the story. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, who starts out as a people-hating miser and ends up as an open-hearted and generous person. Or Jay Gatsby, who appears in the beginning of the story as a rich, flamboyant socialite; turns out to have obtained his riches illegally; and ends up getting blamed—and shot dead—for something he didn’t do. Then there is Heathcliff, anti-social and cruel throughout the entire story.

But readers don’t usually identify with unsympathetic characters, and they don’t like to read about people they don’t identify with. We must catch their interest at the beginning of the book, or they won’t read on. That means that one of our tasks as writers is to generate sympathy for unsympathetic characters or for otherwise likeable characters with unsympathetic beliefs.

Charles Dickens did it with humor; F. Scott Fitzgerald diverted our attention to the people around Gatsby; and Charlotte Bronte generated sympathy through backstory. Although, to be honest, I never did like Wuthering Heights.

Generating sympathy for a main character with unsympathetic beliefs is just part of the job.

So I’ll figure it out.

__________

The drawing at the head of this post comes from Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History (vol. 10), John Lossing Benson, ed. (New York, NY, Harper and Brothers, 1912). It is in the public domain because of its age.

Cruising the Mississippi

Monday, October 9, 2017



I just returned from a research trip aboard the American Queen, a Mississippi steamboat designed to imitate the ones that plied the river in the middle of the 18th Century. Obviously, there are many modern amenities these days, but I looked for—and hopefully found—the boat and the cruise that provided the most authentic experience.

My current work-in-progress is a middle-grade historical novel that involves a steamboat explosion, which was a common occurrence in the 18th Century. My main character, Lizzie, and her family sail downriver from Iowa to Louisiana in the autumn and back upriver in the spring, which is when the tragedy occurs. I didn’t want to experience a boiler explosion, of course, but I was hoping to get a general feel for what the trip might have been like.

I wasn’t just looking for the experience, however. During the trip I visited three museums that had ties to steamboat history. And Lizzie and her family spend the winter on a bayou in Louisiana, so Roland and I took a bayou tour at one of our stops. Still, it was the time spent cruising the river that was the most helpful.

It isn’t just steamboats that have changed in the last century and a half. The Mississippi River itself is different. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain notes that it can change in days, let alone years. Still, I got a general idea of what the banks south of Memphis might have been like when Lizzie would have traveled the river. For example, Mark Twain talks about trees hanging over the river with roots exposed by the action of the Mississippi wearing away the banks, and I am using that in my story. I can picture those banks when I imagine how the landscape in the second photo would have looked without the manmade barrier to prevent erosion.


It’s impossible to get the full historical experience on a present-day research trip.

But every little bit helps.

Flavor-Added Telling

Monday, October 2, 2017


I recently discovered a new author or, more accurately, an old author who is new to me. Her name is Elizabeth Cadell, and the first book I read was The Fledgling.

In some ways, I’m surprised that I liked the book. It begins with an omniscient narrator and long passages of “telling” rather than showing. Omniscient narrators have gone out of style because it is hard to do them correctly, and most sound like failed efforts at third-person point-of-view. Fortunately, Cadell gets it right.

She also manages to succeed with her “telling.” The longest passages come at the beginning of The Fledgling and soon give way to mostly showing. But the telling in the early passages did not bother me, probably for the same reason that I don’t mind the telling that often begins books by classic authors such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens. It’s what I call flavor-added telling because it is seasoned with salt and pepper and other spices.

The Fledgling is the story of a ten-year-old girl who was living in Portugal and is now being sent to school in England. Illness keeps her original travelling companions at home, so an acquaintance of Tory’s father is substituted at the last minute. Here are some examples of the flavor-added telling that Cadell uses to introduce her protagonist.

Tory, sent down before dinner to be presented to [Mr. Darlan], disliked him on sight, and resented being spoken to as though she was six instead of ten. But she had long ago perfected the art of concealing her feelings, and reminded herself that if he had not offered to travel with her, she might have been sent by air in the care of a TAP hostess, thus missing the novel experience of two nights on a train. After the exchange of a few polite sentences, she was permitted to retire, and Mr. Darlan, having no powers of divination, filed her as a mousey, well-mannered little thing, not pretty and certainly no conversationalist; one of those tongue-tied children out of whom monosyllables had to be dragged.

* * *

Young as [Tory] was, every servant in the house knew her discretion to be absolute; their secrets were as safe with her as hers were locked within herself.

* * *

[Tory] sat motionless but relaxed, her expression serious and attentive, her mind elsewhere, lending as always a dutiful eye and a deaf ear. She never fidgeted, never interrupted; she had never been heard to contradict. She agreed with everything that was planned for her, and made her own arrangements later, for she had discovered that the easiest way through life was to set out obediently upon the appointed path and then slip away down a side turning.

Cadell could have said, “Tory was a quiet child who kept her thoughts to herself.” That is pure telling, and it’s boring. Or the author could have shown Tory acting compliant in public but doing something contrary in private, but that would have taken more time. So she uses flavor-added telling to draw the reader in. Cadell announces Tory’s personality, as in pure telling, but also gives us examples that help us see her as a person rather than a description. And this element of “sight” nudges the passage closer to the showing line.

I believe in showing rather than telling most of the time.

But flavor-added telling has its own charm.