I was in a small room waiting to see my pain management doctor. There, taped to the wall, was a series of bright yellow faces staring at me, ten of them as I recall, each with a particular facial expression, indicating the level of pain that I was experiencing. At the time, the pain in my lower back was at a level six with surges reaching number ten. Being a writer, my mind began to wonder. Could I produce a chart showing the ten levels of emotional depth for the characters in my stories. Fiction or nonfiction, characters need depth. Number one would indicate the most depressing feelings possible, like my dog had bled out on me, vomited, empty her bowels, and died in my arms. Number ten would represent the happiest of all feelings: I went home for a quick lunch and ended up getting lucky. Each number, from one to ten, would represent a particular depth of feelings.
I’ve had people ask me how to write a memoir if they haven’t suffered through hard times, how to write about war when you’ve never been in combat, or how to produce a fictional character with depth. Now I’m not an expert on such matters, whether it’s about me or a make believe person. Years ago, I would have registered a two, maybe three on the depth chart. Now, things are different.
When I had been diagnosed as having PTSD brought on by horrific memories of childhood sexual abuse, I began what became longterm psychotherapy. I’ll never forget the first time my therapist made a particular statement followed by, “How do you feel about that?” “What do you mean, how do I feel?” I asked. “Just what I said,” she answered, “tell me what you are feeling.” “Well, you either feel good or bad,” I said. “Now I’m feeling bad.” “Can you be more specific?” she asked. “Do you feel sad, happy?”
It took several sessions before I could even answer the question: “How to you feel about that?” I was so lacking in feelings that I sometimes imagined that my two daughters had died, and then I would measure the depth of my feelings. Empty feelings, that’s what I had. I asked my therapist why I wasn’t able to feel like other people. She assured me that I was a loving, compassionate man and that, in time, I would experience a whole range of feelings. The journey was not easy. It required a lot of hard work, emotional suffering, and a willingness to keep an open mind. Well, it turned out that my therapist was right. In time I became a different person, and I should say, a different writer. I was able to connect with my feelings as never before. I am now a level eight with surges to ten.
I remember the main character in my first book, “The Rita Nitz Story: A life without parole.” After several interviews Rita became upset with the directness of my questions, and accused me of being just like the prosecutor in her case. “You’re all the same,” she said. Six months passed before she granted me another interview. I had completed enough interviews that I could have finished her story, but that was not what I wanted. I though about her background of sexual and physical abuse, the men in her life, dysfunctional family, etc… and realized that given her background, her behavior was quite normal. Without realizing it, I was showing empathy, a characteristic that I had learned in therapy. You can’t get into a character’s head without empathy. Otherwise, you, as the author, become too much of an outsider. And compassion, let’s not forget about having feelings for your character, and an open mind. Empathy, compassion, and an open mind, all things I learned in therapy, opened the door to a deeper relationship between Rita and myself.
A character, whether yourself or fictional, doesn’t have to have a load of experiences or accomplishments to have depth. Every person has a story, has depth. What about a person that is superficial, seemingly empty, devoid of feelings, without material accomplishments, etc….? I would argue that the person who holds all of these characteristics and seems to have no meaningful life, is a character with depth and has the potential for a great story. And don’t sell yourself short. With empathy, compassion, and an open mind you will find that you could be the character in a great story.
Go to the movies: a great place to study characters. Go see Blue Jasime written by Woody Allen. Cate Blanchett does a magnificent job of playing a a New York socialite. Although this is a great movie, I have to admit that Cate Blanchett’s character made me deeply depressed. I found myself so sad that a person could be like her character, and not know how to correct her shortcomings. She didn’t have to be like that, I thought. But all of the character’s shortcomings is what made this into a great movie, in my opinion. Now, apply that to our writing.
Fiction or Nonfiction, characters need depth. Depth is not measured by a resume. Writers need to have empathy, compassion, and an open mind. Then, and only then, will we see the depth in every character. Yes, even when writing about yourself. If you find this a bit weird, or unattainable, I suggest looking into meditation, therapy, and soul searching as a means for finding the empathy, compassion, and the open mind that all writers need.