Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hearing Voices: The Sound of Kindness

Last month, my husband and I were invited to participate in the Once Upon a Time art show, which gave artists the opportunity to illustrate their favorite children’s stories. Our friends at Green Horse Gallery in Manitou Springs, Colorado, hosted the show and it was a wonderful trip, returning to our old home and creative stomping grounds. We saw lots of friends, visited favorite restaurants, and enjoyed the cool pleasantness of this charming community at the base of Pikes Peak.

Then it all came near to burning to the ground last week. In a horrendous firestorm that started in Waldo Canyon, just down Ute Pass from our honeymoon cabin, the wind-fueled hell fires descended not only toward Manitou Springs, but shifted east and north into the city of Colorado Springs where our families live. By the time it was controlled, 30,000 people had evacuated their homes including residents of the venerable Air Force Academy, and sadly almost 350 homes were lost including numerous ones belonging to friends. Saddest of all, two senior citizens lost their lives.
Photo credit: Denver Post
Our theme last month was technology, and all the ways writers use it to further their craft. Back then, I would have told you the most important aspect of online technology was the ability to do research, and the ease of promoting books. But what a difference one event and a few weeks can make. Today, it is the personal connection and the ability to communicate online with anyone almost instantly that carries the most weight with me.

When word of the fire hit the news, I immediately went to Twitter to read the second-by-second news of the fire’s development. The city, the mayor, the sheriff, the news services, everyone was tweeting up-to-the-minute developments. I also discovered a link to which allows computer users to tap into an area fire department scanner and get live reports between incident command and fire fighting units in the field. I sat at my computer and worked, all the while following a non-stop stream of updates, and listening live to the scanner activities. It was almost like being on the scene in person. I was glued to the drama for endless hours each day.
Writers of thrillers and police procedurals often research first-hand what their characters might do by going on “ride-alongs” with policemen or listening in on official dispatchers. I doubt, however, that most authors spend 16 hours a day over the course of a week observing a major crisis. That’s where I had an epiphany that could well work its way into some future story. Not only did I get all the fast-paced plot as this tense real-life story unfolded, I got to hear and know the characters. I started recognizing voices without knowing names, and I got a sense of who they were as people in the ever-increasing stressful situations of this fire from day-to-day. I learned the lingo (bug out!), I heard the deep commitment of the players, and felt the bone-tired weariness at shift change. But I noticed something else that surprised me. Beyond professionalism and respect, I heard kindness in the voices of the people fighting this battle. In the worst case scenario, they were at their very cores, deeply kind people.

Here’s how this played out. At the end of the day, the fire fighters were dispatched to eat and rest with directives like this:

Get some rest. Tremendous effort. Thank you.

Knock off for a few hours. You did great work. Thank you.

See you in a few hours. Good job. Thank you.

Not one person was forgotten. Ever. Each participant got a personal acknowledgment. That’s what finally brought a tear to my eye, and that’s when I had one of those “I can use this” moments.
Photo credit: Bobbi L. Belport
When was the last time you thought about how kind your protagonist is? Can you hear them saying “thank you” to someone? When and why would they? Can they graciously accept gratitude from another? Or maybe they only show their kindness through actions. How much more depth would your character have if you consciously added this aspect to their personalities? Also think about your antagonists. Perhaps you’ve developed a great serial killer. What if he fed the birds every morning? Would your feelings about that character change?

I learned a lot about people under fire last week, and how the worst situations can sometimes bring out the best in us. How about you? Share with us some experiences in life that helped you add depth to your characters.
Dani Greer is founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil, a writer, blogger, editor, and artist. You can explore the many aspects of kindness at the Little Pickle Press blog this month, and participate in a Kind Karma drawing for a bag of children’s books.


  1. True human kindness isn't necessarily revealed in extraordinary circumstances, such as a wild fire, since such situations tend to bring out the kindness, (or selfishness) in people anyway. And firefighters, police and EMT's tend to be kind people anyway- there are always exceptions.
    When you are thinking of your characters, true kindness is revealed in every day situations. That firefighter will run into a burning building to save someone, but will he or she help his/her spouse keep the house clean, or get up in the night to bring their spouses cold medicine, or even just change the baby's diaper?

    I'm not sure you meant it this way, but you sort of implied that only someone who actually says the words "thank you" is a kind person. Or at least is kinder than someone who only does kind acts, without saying thank you. I say both of those will help reveal character equally well. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that getting that fighter or cop or EMT guy a pop and a punch in the shoulder (it's a guy thing) would be better appreciated than the thank you, which is sort of intangible.
    I'll correct myself a little; a man would probably appreciate it more; woman are more verbal, they like to hear thank you, which, I suspect, is why you, a woman, picked up on that aspect on the scanner. Something to remember when working on your characters; man and women react differently.

  2. It's interesting that you mention this topic of gratitude and saying thank you. The biggest thing beta readers had to say about my first novel was that my main character was too grateful. I didn't think it was possible, but I definitely had to harden my characters up a bit.

  3. Interesting comments so far - keep them coming!

  4. This post made me think. As a Red Cross volunteer, I've had plenty of opportunities to witness how disaster brings out the best - and, unfortunately, the worse - in people. But I haven't really used those observations in forming my characters. Not too bright for a writer. Thanks for the nudge.

  5. Dani, shortly after the fire started, I saw it above me and off to the right as I headed up Ute Pass. Bumper-to-bumper traffic was heading down, not a usual sight for a Saturday afternoon. At the first opportunity, I crossed over and, with the help of a kind sheriff, eased into that seemingly endless downward flow.

    Yesterday (July 4), I headed up Ute Pass again. Charred remains blighted several areas of the magnificent scenery along the upward climb, and I felt an almost overwhelming appreciation for the firefighters who fought so hard to keep the persistent fire from jumping the highway and becoming a conglagration that would have destroyed a much larger area for years to come. Devastating as the fire was, it was contained (and now nearly defeated) by the determination of many hundreds of firefighters from all over the country. At the same time, an extraordinary cohesiveness of the Colorado Springs community came to the aid of its own. Yes, thank yous - although seemingly inadequate - are indeed in order.

    I agree that this multi-faceted experience offers great grist for the writing mill, as do many similar disasters that bring out the best (and worst) in people. I also agree that the depth it can add to characterization presents interesting opportunities for development far beyond the two-dimensional characters that populate so many fictional pages. And by the way, I loved your thought about a serial killer who fed the birds. One of the problems with my first novel, which I am currently in the mental process of redoing, was the total badness of the antagonist. Generally speaking, no one is totally bad - as I was told a number of times.

    This is a great post, Dani. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for inspiring some in-depth ones of my own.

  6. What a great suggestion to listen to live streaming from firefighters, etc. If you ever had to write a scene about how first-responders work and talk, you get it first hand. Getting the lingo right is something that I learned by spending 24 hours with police and firefighters on different occasions. Much more in-depth research than just a short interview.

    In terms of being able to get that kind of depth of characterization you mentioned in my own work, I just had the nicest compliment from a woman who is reading Open Season. She said the section where Sarah is reflecting on her mother's death brought tears to her eyes. I drew from my experience as a hospital chaplain for that scene, and probably would not have been able to give Sarah such insights about the dignity of dying had I not had all those years at deathbeds.

  7. Oh, and one thing that I didn't mention. The worst language I heard on the scanner was, "we kicked butt on that one". One of the things that drives me to distraction reading manuscripts and novels, is the never-ending stream of foul language from characters. Perhaps it's not as prevalent as we think? Maybe we really don't need to add the eff-word to add realism to a story? My brother is a narcotics detective and I can assure you he doesn't swear in the course of his work. It's just not part of his vocabulary in the most trying situations. Definitely not real vulgarities. Maybe "damn".

  8. I can't begin to imagine what the firefighters and residents have been going through, but I've seen the difference a "simple" thank-you can bring about. My prayers, and thanks, go out to all those involved.

  9. Great post, Dani. I think one of the greatest gifts we writer-humans develop is the ability to sink into the point of view of another.

    That's what I did after my first husband committed suicide. I was so angry with him because I couldn't relate to what he'd done—not one little bit.

    So I thought: what would have to be taken away from me in order to consider killing myself? As a former dancer, one would be the dream career I'd worked so hard to attain. Then my lover. My family. My support system, including friends and mentors.

    To try to relate on some level to what my husband had done, I took all of these things away my protagonist. Then, when she flirted with disaster, I took away her ability to move. Yet still I couldn't imagine wanting to cash in what little remained—as I hope most who survive the CO fires will, I'd rebuild. As my character does.

    I gained empathy for my husband's story in writing this book, but ultimately it is more of mine—when all seems lost, it's a story of hope.

  10. Dani, your post touched me partly because I graduated from Air Academy High and have been concerned for friends, ut also it touched me because kindness is a major theme in my writing. It has become so rare in some circles as to be considered "charming." I also think we're all growing jaded toward brutality and brutal scenes in books. Simple moments of kindness surprise the reader. God luck with immortalizing some of those moments in a future book

  11. Great feedback, both wonderactivist and Kathryn. And I know there is a determination to rebuild in this community. But I'm hoping that process is smarter this time. The truth hidden in this story is that the homes built up those scenic mountains are unsustainable in this environment. It should never have been allowed, and I hope the zoning changes, because most certainly, the climate conditions will only get worse. This is not a one-time incident. It's very much along the lines of Katrina, and they are rebuilding in the path of another and worse disaster. The cost to the public is astronomical, and to the planet, too. The water supply is already depleted. We don't have license to use it up fighting fires. I could go on... but won't. Still, it's all fodder for a story, isn't it?


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