I intended to write a blog post before January 13th, but of course, best intentions don’t equate to words on a computer screen. It also doesn’t help that best intentions’ older brother, procrastination, likes to take advantage of the fact that I’m on holidays and feels perfectly entitled to walk into my house and make himself at home on my very comfortable couch.
I’m not sorry that I took a break, though. As much as I love writing, I think there are times when the brain needs a break from endlessly composing perfect sentences (I wish). Now that I’m back from my holiday, though, I’m ready to get back into routine. Well, as much of one as is possible when one isn’t working.
For the past few months I have been anticipating the release of Tangled, Disney’s new animated feature that is a re-telling of the fairytale ‘Rapunzel’. The trailers were enough to whet my appetite, and after reading a few positive reviews following the US release in November I was convinced that this was a film I would enjoy.
Since it’s release last Thursday in Australia, I’ve seen the film twice—once in 3D and once in 2D—and I loved it both times. The 3D version wasn’t distracting or over-the-top (thankfully), and the story was so good that I had no problems shelling out twice to see it. (Considering I saw each of the Lord of the Rings instalments… seven times each, twice is nothing. Yes, I’m not joking—I saw Return of the King twice on opening day. I’m still not sure whether to be proud or embarrassed about that.)
Anyway, as you can probably tell, I enjoyed Tangled immensely. I’m not going to give a full review of the film here—there are plenty of decent reviews on the web already, Orson Scott Card’s being one of them—but I am going to segue into the topic that is kind of the point of this blog: writing.
I’m not exactly a stone-cold person, but I was surprised at myself for shedding a few tears while watching Tangled. And those tears—shed during each screening—made me marvel more than a little that an animated feature, whose characters were beautifully rendered but still not really life-like, could cause such a powerful emotional response in me. One of the scenes where I showed my soppiness involved no speaking at all: just a mother and father looking at each other, grieving over the loss of their child. The emotions portrayed by those pixels were so real and so human that I even feel a little misty-eyed just recalling it.
It makes me wonder, though, about exactly how a writer (or in this case, an animator) creates a powerful emotional experience. Randy Ingermanson, whose blog and e-zine I have been following now for almost a year, suggests that the point of writing fiction is about giving the reader a powerful emotional experience. In his book Writing Fiction for Dummies he says: ‘You do this by showing your PoV character having a powerful emotional experience and then convincing your reader that he or she is that character.’
At first glance, this explanation seemed a little too simple. Yet, as I reflected on my experience of watching Tangled I realised that he was exactly right: I cried in that moment because those characters cried, and because for those few moments I was those characters.
What is it that allows a reader to become so involved in a story that they not only enjoy the characters they are reading about, but they become them? I’m going to be honest enough to say that I’m not entirely sure. I’m pretty sure I’m a character-focused writer, and yet much of what I do when I write my characters still feels instinctive to me. I think it would take a lot of thought and deconstruction to figure out exactly what it is a writer does when they create a character that leaps off the page and connects with a reader. Perhaps one day I’ll give myself the time to sit and think that through—or else find someone else’s thoughts and have an ‘aha!’ moment and have all the hard work done for me.
In the meantime, though, I can hazard one guess about one of the ingredients of a powerful emotional experience: going through a powerful emotional experience yourself. That is, if I want a reader to connect with my characters and feel their emotions, then I have to connect with my characters and feel those emotions first.
Exactly how that happens is probably different for every writer. For me, it involves a mixture of visualisation—like watching a movie in my head from my character’s point of view—and instinct. Sometimes when I write I get the feeling that I am this character, that I’m standing in their shoes watching and feeling the same things they are. A little creepy perhaps, but I see it as an extension of the ability to empathise.
This is not to say that I hit the mark every time. Sometimes I fail miserably. So too in life. As much as I might try to see something from another person’s point of view, I don’t always get it right. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to empathise, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to experience and then pass on the emotions of my characters. If I could create the same emotion in a reader that I myself have experienced countless times reading the books I love, then the effort will have been worth it.
This is what stories are about, for me: spending time inside the experiences of others, understanding a little more about someone else’s life, and so understanding a little more about myself. (Because heaven knows, I often don’t understand myself at all.)
And if you haven’t seen Tangled yet, then do yourself a favour and get to your nearest cinema as soon as possible.