“I loved that book. I really felt like I could not relate to the characters one bit.”
Said no one ever.
Writing real characters is an essential feature of a story that moves readers and pulls at their heart strings. Yet it’s one of the most misunderstood elements of fiction. Ranking right up there with “show, don’t tell,” creating realistic characters is one of the most oft-touted pieces of writing advice. It’s also one of the toughest skills to master.
Because I think this is such a crucial element in any good story, it’s a topic I’ve written about before. I guest posted at Romance Lives Forever with a piece called 3 Tips for Writing Likable Characters, and I posted my own piece called What Does It Mean to Creat a “Real” Character. I’m all about using personal and small detail to bring characters to life, and recently, a personal loss served to remind me of the ways in which this can be done.
A month ago, my family faced the heartbreaking decision to put our cat, Shasta, down. After a relatively short illness, and a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse, we had very little time — literally minutes — to come to terms with what we knew we needed to do, and to say goodbye. The loss of our sweet, loving friend has left a significant hole in our family, and we’re all struggling with our grief.
The day after she passed, I went downstairs to feed the two remaining members of our feline complement, Liam and Kerri. I opened the cans of food, and plunked them onto the plates. As I stared at those brown, gelatinous, cylindrical mounds, it hit me — I would not need to divide them into three equal portions any more. The routines and habits I’d established over the past eleven years of having three wonderful cats … were now forever altered.
It was such a small, unexpected moment, but it was one in which I felt that sense of loss keenly. That awareness that things are no longer the same. Someone is gone from my life, and won’t be coming back.
In our fiction novels, we often work themes of loss and grief into our stories. This is especially true of the romance genre, which relies heavily on emotion in all its highs and lows. In fact, loss and grief are usually an aspect of the love and redemption that our stories seek to bring to life.
It’s very easy to fall into “telling” rather than “showing” grief. We rely on our words to explain the emotions that go hand-in-hand with loss: her heart was heavy; he felt as though someone had torn a hole in his chest.
Sometimes, though, it’s more effective to show grief through simple, unexpected moments. Perhaps that “cat food” moment did more to illustrate the hurt in my heart than the most eloquently written passage about my pain, my loneliness, and my regrets ever could.
And because I’m a writer, I just had to take this moment as a learning experience.
Here’s an example of how a “cat food” moment can be used in writing:
Grace passed the night in a fitful half-sleep. She’d toss and turn, finally nodding off only to wake an hour later to a dark room and a maddening silence. When her alarm sounded in the morning, she was already awake. Her first instinct was to turn it off, but as she reached for the snooze button, her hand stopped in mid-air.
The alarm was on Clay’s side of the bed.
In all the frenzy of the past few days, it had not occurred to her that there would be a need to move the thing to her own night stand.
She stared at the hateful black box with its blue digital numbers. Each shrill chirp of the alarm grew louder and louder, a cruel reminder that Clay would never again be there to silence it.
Grief is an odd, intangible thing. We all know what it feels like, but describing it makes it less potent somehow. The language that brings grief to life is, amazingly enough, a language that has no words. It’s the language of empathy. We all know those moments that sneak up on us; we’ve all experienced them at one time or another. They need no description, no earth-shattering prose. They are simple moments, but ones that are powerful in their simplicity.
As writers, it’s up to us to channel these moments of personal loss (our own “cat food” moments, if you will) into our writing. Readers will respond to that.