Monday, August 2, 2010

Characters with Depth

Things which happen to us in childhood can haunt us all of our lives. They might cause us to stifle our potential, inflate our egos or live a reclusive, permissive or indulgent life. Our hearts and souls, our innermost thoughts and ideas about ourselves can be greatly influenced by our childhoods in positive and negative ways.

Characters in stories who touch something familiar in readers are the type of characters we remember.

Writers, think about this when developing your characters: What happened to John or Jane Doe which changed him/her in a most profound way? What deeply changed them and why? Answer these questions, and your character will become deeper, richer, more human than you thought he/she could be.

Take a look at this excerpt from “Stephanie’s Surprise,” the second book of my Heart Junction Series which is set in the early 20th Century.

Setup: Stephanie has just helped Dr. Aaron Wesly (who is in love with her) with an emergency medical situation. She performed unbelievably well, and he’s wondering why she quit nursing when she was young to become a teacher.

“I want you to tell me why you are so certain you should be a teacher instead of a nurse.” He sat next to her. “I’ve seen you in the classroom, and you’re a very good teacher. But in there,” he said, pointing his thumb in the direction of the room where they’d worked on Harvey, “you were perfect. You knew exactly what to do. You knew exactly what I needed.” He looked at her with an admiration she’d never seen in his eyes before. “Miss Porter, you are a nurse. Why do you deny it?”

She bolted from the sofa and went to the fireplace across the room. She stared into the empty hearth as though she were looking into the darkness of the past. “I would rather not discuss it.”

She felt him behind her, close and warm, his body heat touching her while he remained several inches away from her.

“I think you should talk about it, Miss Porter. You came alive in that room in a way I’ve never seen anyone do before. You were a part of everything that was taking place. You were made to care for, maybe even to heal people.” He paused a moment. “I think you could be a doctor, if you set your mind to it.”

She spun around to face him. “A doctor?” She folded her arms defiantly in front of her. “A doctor! Why do you insult me?” She walked away from him.

“I insulted you?”

She turned back to him. “Yes! I want nothing to do with doctors. They can’t heal everyone. Sometimes they’re completely useless.”

“And sometimes we’re very helpful. Sometimes we save lives.”

“Don’t preach high and mighty to me, Dr. Wesley. Doctors kill people, and so do nurses!” Tears began to roll down her cheeks.

“Miss Porter, what are you talking about? Why would you say such hideous things?” Shock covered his face.

She turned and headed for the door. “I’m going home.”

He caught her arm before she reached the arch of the parlor. “You’re not going anywhere. I want you to explain why you said what you said.” The grip on her arm turned from firm to gentle. “Please, Miss Porter, I must know.”

A wave of exhaustion went through her. “I need to sit down.”

He took her arm and led her back to the sofa. He sat next to her and handed her his handkerchief. “Tell me why you have such a great distaste for doctors.”

She wiped her eyes and nose. “They killed my sister.” She sobbed harder. “I…I…I killed my sister.”

He gently stroked her hair. “In a million years, you could never harm anyone,” he said softly.

When she began to cry uncontrollably, he took her into his arms. “There, there, Miss Porter. You need to get hold of yourself.”

Stephanie clung to him as though she’d die if she didn’t. She needed the comfort he offered. She needed him to hold her and comfort her and to understand how she hated herself for what she’d done.

“How did she die, Miss Porter?” he asked when she began to calm down.

She pressed her cheek into his shoulder as she tried to draw on his strength. “I took care of her the best I could, Aaron. Mama and Papa trusted me to take good care of Eileen. She was only thirteen years old. She was so sweet and so fragile.” She wiped her nose and snuggled closer to him. “I did everything Dr. Zeeman told me to do. He’d spoken with several specialists, and they’d devised a plan to treat Eileen.”

“What was wrong with her?”

She pulled back and looked up at him. “It was a disease of the blood. She’d had it for years. We all thought the treatment was working. Then Mama and Papa were called away. Grandpa Porter had passed away back in Illinois. They took a train to his funeral and left me alone to care for Eileen.”

She left the sofa. “When they returned, my sister was dead. We’d killed her, the doctors and I, we’d killed her.” She turned to look at him again. “They’d ordered the wrong treatment, or perhaps I made a mistake with her medication.” She shook her head vigorously. “I killed my sister, Aaron. Eileen is dead because of me!”

When her knees began to buckle as she wept with grief and guilt, he went to her and took her into his arms.

She struggled against his grip on her. He shouldn’t be holding her. He was a doctor! She shouldn’t be trusting him. She shouldn’t be wanting him to comfort her.

Aaron held her more firmly as she continued to struggle. “You’re wrong, Stephanie, you didn’t kill her, and I can prove it.”

When she had no more strength to struggle against him, she stopped moving. She pulled back so she could look into his eyes. “You can’t prove anything. You don’t know anything about my sister.”

“I do know about blood diseases, and they can kill people very quickly.”

“But Eileen had been sick since she was nine years old. She’d get better, then worse and better again. When Mama and Papa left, she was doing well.”

“Yes, that’s all part of the pattern for some diseases. Do you know which one she had?”

She shook her head. “No, they never told us. I don’t think the doctors knew either.”

“They probably didn’t want to discuss medical details with you. Doctors are often like that. We tell the patient only what is necessary for them to know.”

“It doesn’t matter what they did or did not tell us. Eileen couldn’t have gotten so sick so fast unless either they or I had done something wrong. I trusted them. I took care of Eileen as they’d told me to do. I was with her when she died. It had to be their fault or my fault. She’d never gotten that sick that fast before.”

He held her close to him once more and kissed the top of her head. “Dear, Stephanie, Eileen’s death was not your fault. What you described is entirely typical of some blood disorders. A patient can live for years and suddenly get very sick and die. I’ve seen it happen.”

“Oh, Aaron,” she said as tears began to stream from her eyes once more, “can what you say be true?” Dare she hope Eileen’s death was not her fault?

He pulled back from her. “Stephanie, your sister’s death was not your fault, nor was it the fault of her physicians. I can assure you of that. In fact, if Eileen survived for years with her blood disease, then I would say she’d received extremely good care, and you were blessed to have had her with you as long as you did.”

She dabbed at her eyes and wiped her nose. “But Papa and Mama said it was my fault. They said I killed her. They moved away and left me alone in Aberdeen because they couldn’t stand to look upon the girl who’d killed their daughter.”

Aaron pulled her tight against himself and gently caressed her cheek. “Dear, God, what have they done to you? No wonder you mistrust doctors. No wonder you deny your inborn gifts for medicine. I am so, so sorry for your misunderstanding, Stephanie.”

He pulled back and took her face into his hands.

“Stephanie, you have got to believe me. Eileen died because God called her home. It was her time to go, and nothing you did made that time come any faster than it was meant to be. Blood diseases are extremely serious and usually quite deadly.”

“But Papa…Mama…they told me--”

He placed his thumbs over her lips as he continued to hold her face in his hands. “Parents can be wrong, Stephanie."

What a gripping bit of information the reader learns about Stephanie. Believe me, this bit of knowledge changes the readers total perception of Stephanie Porter. Her enjoyment of the book has now deepened, and she becomes a bigger part of Stephanie's life and a major cheerleader for her success.

In a nutshell, characters with great depth greatly enhance the reader's enjoyment of any story.

And isn't that what writing is all about?


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author


Jennifer Shirk said...

Great example, Fran!

Fran Shaff said...

Thanks, Jennifer. :-)