Thursday, August 26, 2010

How does it feel to be "fill-in-the-blank"?

An odd question, I admit. It's a form of that stand-by reporter's question of "how did it feel when (fill in either disaster or an extraordinary/celebrated event) happened?" I think we've all rolled our eyes at that question for many reasons. Most eye-rolling is about how the answer seems too obvious. It can seem like "lazy reporting." It also can seem insensitive or catch people off guard; there's too much to say to express big emotions with few words in too little time.

Like yesterday in theatre class, a bright-eyed eighteen-year-old turned around from a couple rows in front to ask me and another forty-something person I sat with (a close friend, btw), "so, how does it feel to be an older student?"

It did take us back a bit. Was our age so obvious? My friend and I later speculated about this and blamed each other for drawing attention. I said it's his fault - - what do you expect when you don't dye your gray hair? "Your roots are showing, too," he snapped back. True, they are. (Yes, we are close friends -- *ah, hem* old high school friends, in fact, from that by-gone era known as the 80's.)

I think I responded to the question with some lame "different priorities" stuff (ever notice how the most important things always sound lame in short answer?), and my friend gave a direct "it sucks" answer. He didn't mean that. Not really. But both of us had a lot of "background" in our answers that couldn't be summed up in a one-minute, on-the-spot answer. My friend's background I knew was a sleepless night spent at a hospital when one of his kids had an asthma attack. Yes, different priorities and responsibilities that don't get translated in "it sucks." Our actual answers to the question, in fact, probably left the poor girl convinced the "older generation" (anyone over 30) are just strange. LOL

But it occurs to me that this "how does it feel" question has a lot of use for character development in writing. What might you learn if you ask your character a "how does it feel" question that seems:
  • too obvious to ask;
  • puts them off guard;
  • also could be insensitive;
  • too complicated - consider the "short answer" to a stranger and the "background"

Be specific. Be insensitive. Ask the hard question you wonder how a reporter gets the nerve up to ask a stranger and then be the empathetic friend to your character. What hard "how does it feel" questions would you ask?

7 comments:

  1. Interesting advice. I'd ask my character how does it feel to be an insensitive douche, but he's likely to answer with a question. What about you?

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  2. Oooh, I like this! I generally let my characters tell me what they're feeling, but maybe they aren't in the mood to do that, or they aren't ready/willing to divulge it. I'm going to do some research and report back to you!

    And I had to giggle at the 18-year-old's question -- I remember how mature and wordly-wise I thought I was at that age. I'm sure their question was not intended to bemalicious, but it would have been tempting to ask something like, "How does it feel to be out of day care?" LOL

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  3. Donna - Hehe, snap! I usually go with "Shouldn't you be watching Power Rangers about now?"

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  4. I agree that the 18-year-old's question wasn't intended to be malicious. That's what made me re-think the insensitivity of a "how did it feel" reporter question. It's just bolder or not as politically correct as you normally get, which is a strange feeling. That's where the temptation comes to dodge the question or turn it back around. LOL But that snappy comeback takes a certain boldness too.

    I don't think any of us usually have a lot of experience with this. Actually, I have a character who is sort of a celebrity it's interesting to experience that "strange feeling" for some idea on how she would react. I just didn't know where my 'claim to fame' would come from! LOL

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  5. Hmmmm...interesting idea. I always figure the 'how does it feel' question shows a lack of imagination on a reporter's side. But then again, it is what the public wants to know. But the obvious ones?

    "How does it feel to know your daughter died because someone fell asleep at the wheel?"

    I mean, slap someone!

    What would I ask my present heroine?

    "How does it feel to embrace the madness and accept the strange course your life has taken?"

    Not too interesting unless you know the whole story!

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  6. Maureen, I know what you mean about the question that makes you want to slap the reporter. Your example is exactly like one that would do it! I think I'm thinking up some form of "tough love" for my characters, though and it occurs to me I'm often asking too nicely. LOL

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  7. I'd really love to see one of those grieving parents take a swing at one of those reporters...

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