Last week, a woman who is renowned for being the kindest and gentlest person in my church came in to the office to drop something off. Don’t worry, we were masked up–I’d never put this beloved 80+-year-old woman in jeopardy. She took one look at me and said,
“Oh dear. Are you recovering from an accident? Are you okay?”
Her alarm seemed out of place, given that I hadn’t been in an accident and it was 9am on an average Wednesday. She pointed under her own eyes, trying to explain her concern. I laughed and said something about not sleeping well these days so I must have extra-dark circles. But she was not placated. She asked why my sleep was off.
Between COVID-19, financial losses, medical stress, adult children not able to find work and struggling to find their way, heavy weights at work, missing the kids I usually work with, compassion for friends and family (some in the WU community) who are grieving and struggling, political strife, gun violence that has invaded my quiet neighborhood, worry over the upcoming U.S. election, and not knowing when I can see my Canadian family again, why wouldn’t I have trouble sleeping?
But I was so used to not sleeping well that I forgot it could be a matter for alarm. It took a moment of tenderness from someone who hadn’t seen me in person since early March to jolt me from my cynical acceptance of my new reality. Not right away, though–it took a few days to let her concern sink in. The second she left I ran to the mirror to see whether my eyes looked that bad and pestered my loved ones about whether I looked so tired that someone could think I had two black eyes.
How about you? What have you gotten so used to that you no longer register it as a serious problem? Are the coping mechanisms you’ve adopted over the last 6 months still working? Do you brush off concern and compassion, too?
Could Your Characters Use Some Tenderness?
As writers, we can get so obsessed with putting our characters in increasingly awful situations, stripping them of their support systems, having their friends betray them, that we forget that compassion and tenderness can play a role in putting tension on every page.
- There’s the terrible false love-bombing tenderness of an abusive lover right after an explosion of violence (physical or emotional) that elicits horrible tension in the reader because we know what’s going on and how temporary it is.
- There’s the small word or act that pushes a character who is concealing their emotions to reveal their tender underbelly and let their messy feelings out.
- There’s the observation that makes your character realize the toll all this (the torturous things you’re putting them through) has taken on them.
- There’s the seemingly-out-of-the-blue understanding that an unlikely character displays for your protagonist that affects how they see themselves and either makes their task seem more possible–or more impossible.
The tenderness doesn’t need to be a sweet moment. It could be delivered in a sharp-tongued manner. In Alan Bradley’s novel series, Flavia de Luce is an 11-year-old chemistry buff and poisons expert living in a big pile of a house in 1950s rural England with her father and two older sisters. In the second book, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, her father’s sister comes to visit. Every word out of Aunt Felicity’s mouth is an insult to someone. She’s bossy, controlling, and Always Right.
One day, she takes Flavia to an isolated part of the property and tells Flavia tales of her own childhood at that house, playing with Flavia’s mother. Harriet had died the year after Flavia was born, and her older sisters had always told Flavia that she had, through being so disappointing that she’d driven Harriet to go to Tibet to escape her, killed their mother.
Aunt Felicity’s words change Flavia’s beliefs about herself in a heartbeat.
“Good heavens, child! If you want to see your mother, you have no more than to look in the glass. If you want to know her character, look inside yourself. You’re so much like her, it gives me the willies.”
And then Aunt Felicity, who is usually aggressively conventional, talks to Flavia about her passion for ferreting out information, particularly about murders:
“You must listen to your inspiration. You must let your inner vision be your Pole Star…. You must never be deflected by unpleasantness…. Although it may not be apparent to others, your duty will become as clear to you as if it were a white line painted down the middle of the road. You much follow it, Flavia…. Even when it leads to murder…. If you remember nothing else, remember this: Inspiration from outside one’s self is like the heat in an oven. It makes passable Bath buns. But inspiration from within is like a volcano: It changes the face of the world.”
In one conversation with a sharp-tongued relative, Flavia not only has a balm to soothe some of her sisters’ cruelty but also encouragement to be exactly what she is, because those things about herself that others see as strange or inconvenient or even unseemly are things that can change the world. She takes that and runs with it through 9 more stories (and at least 9 more murders). It’s one of my favorite scenes in the series.