Have you ever finished reading a book that left you emotionally drained, a novel with impact where you couldn’t pick up another one to read for awhile?
Her name was Susan and we were in the third grade. I saw her for the first time on the playground. She had blonde hair that was almost white, and eyes as blue as a slice of sky laid atop God’s light table.
She looked at me and I felt actual heat in my chest.
Remember that scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone, hiding out in Sicily, sees Appolonia for the first time? His two friends notice the look on his face and tell him, “I think you got hit by the thunder bolt!”
When it happens to us at eight years old, we don’t exactly have a metaphor for it, but that’s what it was––the thunder bolt. Love at first sight!
I remember the ache I felt the rest of the day. My life had changed, divided into two periods (admittedly of not too lengthy duration)—before Susan and after Susan.
Now what? Having no experience with love, I wondered what the next step was supposed to be. How did love work itself out when your mom was packing your lunches and your allowance was twenty-five cents a week?
I’d seen The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. He climbed up the vines to Maid Marian’s balcony. Was that a plan? Not in Woodland Hills, California, a suburb of mostly one-story, ranch-style homes. Clearly, the balcony strategy was out.
I had also seen the 1938 version of Tom Sawyer(I was getting most of my life lessons from movies and Classics Illustrated comic books) and was enamored of his love for Becky Thatcher. And what had Tom done to impress Becky? Why, he showed off, of course.
There was my answer. I would show off in front of Susan.
What was I good at? Kickball. Athletic prowess would be my ticket into Susan’s heart. So out on the playground I made my voice loud and clear when I came up for my kicks. Susan was usually nearby playing foursquare.
And every now and then we’d make eye contact. That’s when I’d kick that stupid ball all the way to the fence.
Yet I was shy, afraid to talk to her directly. I mean, what was I going to say? Want to see my baseball cards, baby? How about joining me for a Jell-O at lunch? Hey, that nurse’s office is really something, isn’t it?
Flummoxed, I thought of Susan for weeks without ever exchanging a word with her. She had no problem with that, it seemed. But she knew I liked her. The rumor mill at school was a fast and efficient communication system. Which only made me more embarrassed.
I considered running away and joining the circus, but my parents were against it.
Then one day circumstances coalesced and the stars aligned.
School was out and kids were heading for the gates to walk home or get picked up. I usually went out the front gate. Susan went out the back, and this day I fell in with that company and quickened my pace to get next to her. Heart pounding, I said something suave like, “Hi.” I don’t recall that she said anything, but at once I found we were side by side, walking down the street.
I started talking about our teacher, Mr. McMahon, who was tall and imposing and a strict disciplinarian (thus, in hallways and safely out on the playground, we referred to him, in whispered tones, as “Mr. McMonster.”)
Susan said nothing. I started to get more confident. Maybe, just maybe, she was interested in what I had to say. And maybe, just maybe, oh hope of all hopes, she actually liked me back.
All of that showing off was about to pay dividends!
And then came one of those moments you never forget, that scorch your memory banks and leave a permanent burn mark. Susan turned to me and spoke for the first time. And this is what she said:
“Just because I’m walking with you doesn’t mean you’re my boyfriend.”
It was the way she said boyfriend that did it. It dripped with derision and perhaps a bit of mockery. If I could have found a gopher hole I would have dived in, hoping for a giant subterranean rodent to eat me up and end my shame.
This all happened fifty years ago, yet I can still see it, hear it and feel it as if it were last week.
Is that not why some of us are writers? To create scenes that burn like that, with vividness and emotion, rendering life’s moments in such a way as to let others experience them?
Even if it’s “only entertainment,” the emotional connection that takes us out of ourselves is something we need. “In a world of so much pain and fear and cruelty,” writes Dean Koontz in How to Write Best Selling Fiction, “it is noble to provide a few hours of escape.” And the way into that escapism is to create emotional moments that are real and vibrant and sometimes even life-altering.
The best way to do that is to tap into our own emotional past andtranslate moments for fictional purposes. Like an actor who uses emotion memory to become a character, we can take the feelings we’ve felt and put them into the characters we create on the page.
Thus, Susan was part of my becoming who I am and how I write.
So Susan, my first love, wherever you are, thank you. Maybe I wasn’t your boyfriend, but you taught me what it’s like to love and lose. I can use that. All of life is material!
I hope you’re well. I hope you’ve found true and lasting love, like I have. I want you to know I hold you no ill will.
But always remember this: I’m still the best kickball player you ever saw.
By Joe Moore
While reading the news recently, a story caught my attention: At least 25 dead in Hong Kong ferry collision. Apparently, two vessels collided, killing 25. More than a dozen others were missing. It’s being called one of Hong Kong’s worst maritime accidents.
Almost every day we read or hear about tragedies in the news: earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, fires, mass killings. As human beings, even the most distant, obscure news of fellow humans losing their lives or encountering other tragedies usually draws some emotion, even if it’s fleeting. But unless we’re directly connected with the people in those news stories, our emotional reaction and interest is often shallow at best. The reason is that we know virtually nothing about them. They are just numbers and statistics. If we take the time to read the article, we may see some additional details that make the people involved a little more real. There may be a human interest angle that grabs our attention for a moment or two before we turn the newspaper page or click on the next link. But basically, we don’t care deeply because we have no emotional connection with them.
As writers, when it comes to our readers, if they have little or no emotional connection with the characters in our books, they won’t care what happens to them. And if they don’t care, we’re in trouble.
An emotional connection is created when a reader formulates conclusions about our characters’ personalities based on what we show the characters doing and saying. It’s not good enough for the narrator to “tell” the reader what a brave and generous guy our protagonist is or that our antagonist is a heinous villain. We have to show the reader through the characters’ actions, dialogue, interior thoughts and reasoning, and the way they treat others and their life choices from one situation to the next. Then a connection can start to form.
A solid approach to establishing each of these is to ask: what would you do? How would you react to a situation that you’ve created in your story? It doesn’t matter whether you’re assuming the persona of the protagonist, antagonist, secondary character or a mere walk-on. You are a human and so are they. They should act and react like humans, think like humans, and reason like humans. Only when they do will the reader form the critical bond or connection. Otherwise, all you have is two-dimensional paper-doll cutouts lacking depth and dimension.
Some helpful techniques include using universal experiences. Who has not told a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? Who hasn’t been faced with deciding between what’s right and what’s easy? Who hasn’t felt animosity or even hate for someone who has wronged you? When your character is in a similar situation, examine how you would react?
If you want your reader to like your character, analyze what it is that makes you like or love someone in real life. Use those emotional traits to build your character. And the opposite is also true. To create a character you want the reader to hate or despise, look for someone you dislike and figure out why. Are they egotistical, self-centered, mettlesome, cold, cruel, or mean? Utilize those universal feelings to build a strong antagonist. But never lose sight of the fact that you’re dealing with humans. Even Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader had strong human characteristics, good and bad.
One universal element that we all can relate to is pain—both physical and mental. Don’t be afraid to dish out the pain when it comes to developing your characters. It’s okay to put pain in their path because it gives them an opportunity to overcome something and by doing so become stronger or wiser or both. Pain, like any other obstacle, is an opportunity for character growth.
The more human you can make your characters, the better chance you’ll have of your readers forming a connection with them. Always consider how you would react, then have your characters act in a similar, logical manner. And throw in a shot of pain once in a while to keep things interesting.
What about you? Think of your most memorable characters, as a writer and/or reader. What made the two of you connect?