My dad died last Thursday (Dec 15th at 4:30 am). The funeral services are today. I've known for a while that this was coming because he's smoked his whole life and the doctors said he'd only have about 18 months left about 23 months ago. My sister said there was an updated prognosis a few months ago, but nobody ever told me about it. Anyway, the week before last I received a call from my sister saying that Dad wasn't doing so well and he might not make it through the night. I got off work early and drove down to Richfield to be with my family. Dad put up a good fight and put us kids through some hell that we'd have been happy without, but I think I learned something from it...maybe.
Okay, so Carol never actually talked specifically about "what if your dad dies." But I think one of her writing tips applies rather well here. You will probably not have experienced what your character is experiencing. For instance, the main character in my book does something with a baseball bat that I never have done (and hopefully never will do). The key to good writing though, is to borrow emotion. Take something you have felt and use it where your character needs it.
With my dad, I've had a lot of varying emotions. When he was first diagnosed with lung cancer I already expected it, but the offical diagnosis dug up a lot of anger in me. I hated my dad for neglecting his health and for not trying to quit smoking sooner. I hated him for not trying to be part of my life more and for thinking that he could put all the responsibility of our relationship on me. I was in the anger phase for a long time. When I went to Richfield the first time this month and saw how bad my dad's health was, it was hard. I hated seeing him in so much pain and I couldn't even bear to stay for long. He was angry too. I think angry at what he'd done to himself. Embarrassed that he couldn't walk by himself or use the toilent alone or even wipe his own ass (I did it for him while I was there). Telling you how I felt wouldn't begin to allow you to know how I felt. I stayed up with him until 2 am trying to get him off the toilet and into his bed. He didn't wnat to move. The only audible phrases he would muster up were "Get the hell away from me" and "leave me the fuck alone". So, I tried to keep him hydrated as much as I could by feeding him Otter Pops becuase it was the only thing we could get him to keep in his mouth and swallow. He wouldn't open his eyes much. I think he was ashamed at the state he was in and he couldn't bear to look at us. Every move he made hurt. And every touch from his kids hurt even more--especially when we tried lifting him off the floor. He spit pills at my sister. Punched me in the leg. Tried to kick my sister in the face. He didn't go without a fight. And every time he cussed at me, I cussed back--something my sister didn't appreciate very much. I guess I was still in the anger phase (and to be honest, I probably always will be).
I left after that weekend. My sister didn't want me to leave. She hadn't slept in at least a week. But I couldn't stay. I had work and errands and I didn't want to watch my father die. 4 days was enough for me. I talked to my sister on the phone later in the day when he died. She was angry at me for not staying. Angry that I didn't want to meet with the funeral home right away so we could plan his funeral services. Angry that I wouldn't just put my entire life on hold to watch my dad die. I don't think she was ready to let him go. There were a lot of emotions flying around. Guilt. Regret. Uncertainty. Confusion. Anger. And a lot of hurting. It's funny how even when you know somone is dying it always comes as a surprise. You never know exactly when the moment will be.
I have a character in my book who lost a husband to cancer. She's the character that my MC can't relate to and doesn't understand. Maybe it's because she's sill grieving for her husband...maybe she does it in a different way than I would or than my main character would...maybe it's more like the way my sister is grieving--I don't get it, but I know that she has put a lot of pressure on me and I don't like it. Maybe that's why she was so angry at her own sister--for not being there when he died. For not helping. For not being the friend she had always been before.
Wow. I'm amazed at how I end up figuring things out about my characters when I try to share the things I've learned.
Okay, so here's some scenarios.
Your MC has been taken back in time and is in the land of dinosaurs. Where do you find the emotion for that?! Have you ever flown to a brand new city and had no clue where anyone was? Or a different country where you didn't speak the language? Or have you ever been hiking and seen a bear or a moose? Or have you just been on a stroll aroud the block and been chased by a dog? Or have you been left home all by yourself at night time and you thought that the shadows in the corner were creepy lurkers about to kill you? Maybe you can borrow some of those emotions to help you feel what your character is feeling.
Your MC played around on the jungle gym at recess and split his pants open and everyone could see his mickey mouse underwear (mickey mouse is so first grade and your character is in the fourth grade). But you never spit your pants open and never had mickey mouse underwear? Well, have you ever laughed while drinking somehing and it all spewed out? Have you ever forgotten to zip up your fly and someone had to point it out to you? Have you ever misspelled the simplest word (like gote or kat or sandwitch) and somebody asked if you were really an English major? Surely you've had some embarrassing moments in your life--now's the time to pull them out of the closet you've ashamedly stuffed them into and put them to some use.
Your MC's dad dies at the climax of your novel. But you've never had anyone close to you die. Are you sure? What about the time when you were six and your puppy got hit by a car and you dug a grave for him out in the back yard and held a funeral and everything? Have you ever had to flush a goldfish? Have you ever seen a horrible accident on the highway? Or did your lover ever go out of town without you for a few days and you missed them fiercely? Did someone ever cut you off in traffic and you were in a hurry already and they didn't even use their blinker and you had to slam on your brakes? Borrow that emotion.
The thing about emotion is that it can be very specific to a character or situation, but it's also very transferrable and universal. You don't have to experience exactly what someone else has in order to relate or empathize. We've all felt pain, embarrassment, uncontrollable laughing type joy...you just have to use what you feel and figure out where when why and how your character feels that too.