Creating Sympathy Vs. Pity in Writing by Julie Egert
Every writer knows that a story has to start with a problem for their character to solve. The main character in a story has to have some sort of conflict thrown at them, or where's the story? There's plenty of conflict in everyday life, but writers often have to "up the ante" in their books to give their readers an escape. Spilling your Caramel Latte in your lap or getting stuck in traffic for hours amounts to a very bad day, but not usually a bookworthy problem. (Unless, say, you're right in front of a very sinister person in said traffic...or better yet trapped with them in the car and you've just found out they're the "bad guy"...Maybe you're on your way to warn someone about something dire and now you can't get there...the clock's ticking...)
But I'm getting off point here. Frequently writers turn to death, disease, or failed relationships in their writing. (As an avid reader I'd call it the "top three" of plot points/problems I see).These things are all part of the human experience and they can make great stories. I actually turned to all three of them in my book! (Sounds like three Lifetime movies in one, doesn't it? Not that I don't LOVE Lifetime movies...) Of course, there's the cardinal rule: The reader has to care about the character before they care about what happens to them. It's not enough to throw a bunch of elaborate problems at a character if the reader doesn't care who they're happening to. So how much drama is too much? When does a reader stop and say, "Okay, I've crossed the line from being sympathetic here, to just irritated. This is just a big laundry list of problems, and I'm waiting for the locusts to come..."
I think a key here is humor, and how the characters are written. I started to think about the whole sympathy vs. pity thing when I was recently in the hospital and feeling sorry for myself. Then I started tallying up all of the ridiculous things that had happened when I was in the hospital, and mentally wrote a novella titled "Peekaboo, ICU." I told my family the cover would be a shot of a person with their hospital gown gaping open in the back. That day I got up and took a walk around the hospital wing I was "vacationing" in, and started feeling better. Time to stop lying around thinking, "Poor me."
I think an author's approach to how they handle their characters' problems is also important--if not handled with humor, do the characters at least grow and learn something? In my book, I wanted readers to understand what the character goes through living her life with Type I Diabetes and what a struggle it can be day to day--that's a very personal and important issue for me. The desire for people to understand that was one of the things that spurred the writing of the book. But I didn't want them to necessarily pity her. When my character is in the hospital she at least has a sense of humor, and recalls thinking that the handsome lab tech who visits is part of some fabulous dream when he starts massaging her arm--until she feels the pinch of a needle and he starts drawing her blood. She has to learn and grow from the experience, and others she encounters, or else it's just a set of problems with no purpose. Kind of like life.
Julie Egert's first novel, The Left Side Of The Stairs, is available through Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, and BooksAMillion.com, or through Aberdeen Bay publishers. She is currently working on her second novel, Summer at Ringing Rock. Visit her website: http://julieegertwrites.com/
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Review of The Left Side of the Stairs
Julie kindly sent me a copy of her book, The Left Side of the Stairs. She did a terrific job portraying how her characters deal with the problems of life, Shelby with the loss of her husband and moving to a new place and the changes in her life and Miranda who fights against drug addiction because she's pregnant; and all the people who come within their life circles. This is a novel that deal with choices that young people must make today, and why some make the wrong choices and what how these decision will affect their lives. The topics in the book were treated intelligently and realistically and though it was much different than my usual reading, I enjoyed it very much. Highly recommended.