On killing/tormenting your characters

I heard a film director once commenting on how much she dislikes shooting scenes which need a small child to cry. I’d never thought about this but of course you can’t expect a baby or toddler to playact for you. You have to make him or her cry on cue, sometimes for multiple takes. This can’t be fun.

If you are writing fiction that isn’t action/adventure/pornography, by which I mean fiction in which the author seeks emotional involvement with the characters (ok, I’m leaving myself open to debate here, but I’ll go on), then what happens to the characters must in some degree “happen” to the writer. I don’t think you can lead a character you want readers to care about into the Valley of the Shadow and then say, “Now you go get yourself killed/raped/betrayed while I step out for a latte.” You have to be there.

In When We Were Strangers, my protagonist suffers a violent sexual assault. While by grace I was not writing from personal experience, still the scene required the process I associate with method acting — vividly recalling past circumstances of feeling powerless, emotionally assaulted, trapped. It recalled being there visually for the literary choreography. Where is his hand now? Hers? How is he holding her, exactly? How can/can’t she move? What is she feeling now? Not pleasant. Then there is the mental debate that comes with powerlessness, the tangle of fury, guilt and assault to the Self: Why did I do XYZ that got me into this situation? Am I the guilty one? Do I deserve this? How could I have known? Is this what the world is really like after all? Why should I live? Why should he/she live? How can I make it stop? Can I do worse to this person? Who am I now? The appeal of descent to nothingness. Nobody wants to enter that dark place.

Surprisingly, a later scene which required emotional engagement with the perpetrator who is now the vulnerable one was even harder. It required identification with one so wounded and broken as to have done that, who felt it was normal or his right. Hard to connect to that part of oneself.

In my novel in progress, the flow of action has moved to the death of a child. A charming, fully alive child, full of promise. It’s not easy. It shouldn’t be easy. It takes something from you but perhaps, in the end, fills you up again.

Thoughts from readers or writers or both?

Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

Posted in WWWS

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Workshop on Point of View for the Knoxville Writers Guild, Sat. Feb. 18, 2017, 10am to noon

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Recent Review
“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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