Thursday, November 3, 2011

All the other kids

I had a really nice, coherent post in mind for today, but then NaNoWriMo began to eat my brain, and now I'm not sure you'll get much more than mush. But I shall try!

I've been hearing the Foster the People song Pumped Up Kicks on high repeat on the radio lately- it's been in the top ten here for a while. I'd been tapping my fingers on the steering wheel, whistling away, for a good couple of weeks before I heard a DJ mention that the song was slightly controversial because it was about a Columbine-style high school shooter.

Say whaaa? I'd actually been singing bits of the song- you'd better run, better run, outrun my gun- without ever noticing what it was about. The catchiness neatly hid the lyrics, which apparently was intentional on the part of the band, to make a bit of a point about the acceptability of violence amongst teens these days.

As soon as they mentioned Columbine, my mind landed automatically on a few of the things I know about that event- even though it happened on the other side of the world, more than a decade ago now, I still remember the names of the killers.

Which, wow. Those names are really seared in my memory. And it got me thinking about what exactly resonates with us when it comes to powerful moments in history. I can think of many in the last two decades that I remember with similar depth.

The answer for me was pretty simple. I could give two figs about the guys who took guns to school that day and killed a lot of people. The ones I care about are those who were impacted. And I think that almost every event that has stuck with me has been the same- in 1999, I was one year out of high school, and Columbine rattled me because it was all so familiar. All those other kids? They were just like me.

I can think of so many other examples. In 2001, I was only eight months home from a working holiday in the US, and studying (from a distance) the Five Points archaeological material that was stored at the World Trade Centre, when September 11 happened. In 2002, boys my husband went to school with were amongst the dead in the Bali bombings. In 2004, I watched mind-boggling video footage of a tsunami sweeping into the grounds and swimming pool of a Thai hotel in which I'd stayed only a few years earlier. And speaking of tsunamis, in 2011 I watched similar footage from Japan, numbed by the vastness of the devastation. It wasn't until I heard about a school full of children still waiting for their parents to come pick them up days later (the parents not having survived the impact) that I really lost it and found myself a sobbing mess.

You get my point. Everything I mention above was a tragic event, but besides a basic sense of global empathy and community, these things really resonated with me specifically because I could identify with the people who were affected. In widescale tragedies, this means many, many people find themselves affected, even if they don't have a direct connection, because of the range of people and circumstances caught up in the event.

The way I've responded emotionally to these things has changed over the years, too- from simply feeling an understanding of what normal life was like for Columbine students before it was all shattered for them, to being in a relationship and feeling extreme empathy for those who lost their loves to a horribly unpredictable event, to having a child and feeling greater love and greater fear than ever before.

All this comes back to what makes good fiction really good, for me. Your circumstances don't have to be tragedies, nor do they have to be global in scale. But you have to make me as a reader identify with your characters enough to empathise totally with them and what they're going through. If you can do that, you'll have written a book I can't put down.

You'd have a very narrow demographic if you took the concept too literally. But making your characters identifiable and understandable to the reader isn't only about their age, race, circumstances, or any of those outward things. It's about being very in tune with the way they think and feel, so that anyone who picks up your book will come to know the person they're reading inside and out. Make them people with lives and desires worth caring about.

Like a moment in history, a book that gets this just right can stay with you forever. The outward events must have the impact, yes. But the inward effects are the core of what makes a great story.


  1. Oops, hit enter too soon.
    What I was going to say was in re "But you have to make me as a reader identify with your characters enough to empathise totally with them and what they're going through" DH and I had another one of those "write what you know or not" conversations last night. I was trying to explain that you can't experience everything in life but you can certainly extrapolate, based on emotion.
    Yet we couldn't reach a consensus. I mean, do you have to have lived through bombings or imprisonment or bereavement to write about these things? And if some say we do, doesn't that negate half of our writing efforts?
    Does it not also negate part of the purpose of writing, which is to explore these emotions and possibly provide guidance or empathy or the 'you are not alone' sense to readers?

  2. I know the feel of a high school on lock down because a man with a gun is in the neighborhood. It's what I felt on the day of Columbine. Of course, I'd spent my day among teens that day. You reminded me, Claire.

    And reminded me that though I've never adopted an abused child, I do know what the feelings are of worry and fear for a child. Great post!

  3. Claire,

    I found myself humming this not-so-little ditty myself. Just a thought on the subject matter...

    Neglect and/or abuse at the hands of a boy's father, access to guns and/or drugs, and repeated bullying at school from the “cool” kids with their “pumped up kicks”, or at the very least, feeling invisible in and out of school are often behind tragedies such as these.

    Your segue into "...making characters (and plot) identifiable and understandable" is brilliant. EMPATHY, in my opinion, must drive all great writing. Though particular life experience gives us a crystal clear picture, I don't believe it to be absolutely essential in creating one when one truly feels empathy for another human being, animal, tree in the forest, etc.