They may be deeper than you realize
I’m sharing one of my real-life experiences: something I observed at our Veterinary Clinic about 14 months ago. I learned something important about others and about myself — and I realized how it can (or should) tie-in to our writing.
A heavy-set man was in front of me in line at the Veterinary Clinic counter — he looked pretty rough and dour. I didn’t pay all that much attention except to note the receptionist had him sit to wait for Dr. B.
I began my business with the receptionist and also had to wait [I was picking up my mother-in-law’s dog]. I didn’t really resent having to run this errand, but I was NOT happy about it. I fiddled with my phone camera because I’d been instructed to take a pix of ‘Ginger’ (after her grooming). Nobody else was in the waiting room, so I tried to engage that man by verbalizing my difficulty in getting the camera to function. No response.
It seemed odd. Usually most people at the Vet seem eager to engage. So I chalked him off as somebody who also didn’t want to be there; I guessed he’d been coerced into running this errand and really wanted to be off somewhere pounding nails or pouring concrete.
Shortly, Dr. B. appeared in the waiting room’s doorway. I didn’t catch everything he said because I wasn’t really paying attention. But I heard Dr. B. ask if the man wanted to go ‘back’ to the office to go over the results. Or would he like to have ‘her’ – I presume wife or daughter – call Dr. B. later for those results. Difficult to tell what the man replied. I still had him pegged as not giving a hoot either way.
Shortly a clinic employee appeared with a little frou-frou dog like a Bichon. Now I had assumed the whole story: the guy was coerced into running this errand, he was impatient to leave, and the frou-frou dog was his wife’s pet. He just wanted to pay and get on with his real interests.
Then Dr. B. began going over the results … right there in the doorway. “These readings are literally off the chart, that’s why you don’t see a mark. The other levels are way high.” More medical detail about the test results.
It was then I noticed the man (his back to me) wiping tears from his eyes.
Dr. B. kept on explaining with no visible emotion [I guess Vets have to be that way]. Soon the man began sobbing … but he never said a word.
Why do I share this story? [Depressing as it is]. Because most of us have been there — hearing that bad news from a Vet. But mostly because I stood there and ‘judged’ this man as an uncaring bum … when all the time he was grieving (clearly knowing that this little dog would have to be put down).
He left with the dog and Dr. B. gave him some private phone numbers. “Have your wife call me when y’all make up your minds. Any time.”
With tears streaming down his face, the man left … without saying a word.
Just as I learned a heart-breaking lesson about this actual individual – that he was a LOT deeper than I had assumed (by his appearance and lack of interaction) – it’s often too easy for us to write characters with a similar lack of dimension. That man was a lot deeper than I gave him credit for.
I realized that I’ve written characters who were too shallow because I took the easy way out and just propped up some one-dimensional cut-outs … to move along my story.
For me, the lesson is: be attentive to your characters and look for something which can sneak up on your reader … just as this man’s tears sneaked up on me.
Your characters may be – or perhaps should be – deeper than you may realize. Don’t short-change them … or your readers.
QUESTION: Have you ever written a character who does something much deeper than you’ve led the reader to expect?
Jeff Salter has completed seven novel manuscripts, three of which he considers chick lit. He also co-authored two non-fiction books with a royalty publisher, in addition to an encyclopedia article and a signed chapter. Jeff has also published articles, book reviews, and over 120 poems. His writing has won nearly 40 awards, including several in national contests. He’s a retired librarian, a decorated Air Force veteran, and a published photo journalist. He’s married with two children and six grandchildren.