Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How Shame and Vulnerability Can Connect Us to Characters

By Bonnie Randall

Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)

Brene’ Brown said “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”

Hold onto that quote. It is going to be an important anchor as we dive into some character analysis and contrasts between two highly successful pieces of Domestic Noir: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and The Wife Between Us by the literary team of Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen.

Each of these novels has much to be proud of, and each has an enthusiastic fan base. For the purposes of this article—on how shame and vulnerability can connect us to characters—it will be very clear that one of these novels just didn’t cut it for me. In that, I beg you to remember that reading is a subjective experience, and that my opinion is merely one grain of sand on an endless beach.

Now here we go.

Gone Girl told the story of Amy and Nick, two highly attractive, urbane, and intelligent up-and-comers in (where else?) New York City. They are star-struck over each other…until they aren’t, and as the novel dissects a marriage gone terribly wrong, we see the lengths to which one party will go to completely cut the proverbial throat of the other. It is a marvelous premise and a brave, shell-game sort of plot. But…

I could not connect. I could not connect to Amy—unabashedly smug about being a Size 2. In your face about being gorgeously blonde. Clear and direct that she was smarter and more cunning than anyone or maybe everyone. Cruel and dismissive and vulgar when describing other women. Amy was a character with no humility. No humanity. Amy gave me absolutely not one moment where I could look at her and see myself in her shoes.

Nick was no different. Selfish, arrogant, self-absorbed, and greedy, there was just nothing there that resonated for me in any connective way. Again, a lack of humility. Again a lack of humanity.

So while the plot and premise of Gone Girl was brilliant, the entire book left me cold because I had no empathy for either protagonist and, if the whole book’s point was, indeed, to tell the story of two thoroughly despicable people, then….well, then it was a waste of my time.

The Wife Between Us, by contrast, is anything but a waste of time. Meet Nellie and Vanessa who are, respectively, an ingénue engaged to a fabulously wealthy—and fabulously attentive—man, and his jilted wife who is a little older, and a whole lot more savvy than her younger replacement. Walking into this novel, you expect to land in either one camp or the other: Team Ex or Team Ingénue. You land in both, though, because the way these characters’ internalizations are drawn taps into our own shame and vulnerability in such a deft way that we cannot help but identify with each of them. Consider this passage:
“(Nellie thought that) …maybe his ex could identify the top notes in a bottle of wine. And Nellie bet that his ex was confident about the pronunciation of charcuterie, unlike Nellie, who’d had to point at it on her menu once.”
Okay, now, ’fess up: Who hasn’t had to point to a dish on a menu as opposed to try wrestling with what you know will be a mispronunciation? And who here hasn’t been in the presence of someone who has the uncanny knowledge of a sommelier, who can give a description the length of Citizen Kane about a bottle of wine you’d just describe as ‘fruity’ or maybe, on a day your taste buds were in overdrive, ‘okay’? Admit it! We have all felt gauche and unsophisticated before. We have all felt that shame of not being good enough / smart enough / classy enough. So we can, because we know how that feels, relate to Nellie in this passage because it sucks to be humiliated. And because it sucks for her and for us, we root for her here. (Seriously—I hear the word ‘charcuterie’ and it brings out the reverse snob in me. I always want to look into the eye of the speaker and say, deadpan, “You mean meat tray?”)

Or try this sentence, a quick passage which occurs after Vanessa has been at the kind of party most of us would never even know exists were it not for movies and books—a party where mini lamb chops are being served with mint jelly, and ceviche is in individual tasting spoons:
“When Richard and I arrived home from the party, I began to climb the stairs toward the bedroom, looking forward to rolling down the elastic band of the stockings that were cutting into my stomach.”
Oho! So much for being a Size 2 like Amy in Gone Girl. Here is a moment every female can relate to no matter what kind of party she has been to—the discomfort both physically and emotionally (shame again) of being mashed into clothing that should fit, but….doesn’t. Been there. Everyone I know has been there. And here is yet another example of humility and humanity that connected me to this character; I can root for someone when I feel bad for them. I can and will root even harder when I have been there myself.

So how do we replicate this in our own writing? Well, first off remember what Brene’ said: “Tell our story to someone who responds with empathy”, then remember that shame burrows in the little things we keep secret—those things we (mistakenly, incidentally) believe keep us outside the circle of all the smarter, classier, more urbane people. Like how to pronounce charcuterie. Like stockings that don’t fit, or a dress chosen for its indistinct cut because it’ll hide all our bulges (while simultaneously keeping us feeling frumpy all night). Like not knowing what the hell the ‘right’ response is when the maître d' pours that tiny splash of wine in our glasses. Like offering a gift of sentiment only to see how cheap it really looks once it is held up in contrast to all the recipient’s finer, more expensive things.

The list is long for, sadly, our shame and vulnerability truly do run that deep—yet are also, ironically, that universal. So as such, shame and vulnerability offer up literally thousands of opportunities to create those quick, incidental internalizations for our characters that will create the empathic connection we want from our readers. After all, and as Brene wisely tells us: “Stories are just data with a soul.”

Also, and perhaps more importantly, please take the time to reflect on your own vulnerability and shame. Again, as Brene Brown advises, “Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough”(But here’s a big truth: You ARE and ALWAYS HAVE BEEN good enough). But don’t take it from me. Brene’s TED talks are legendary, and many of you will have already seen them— but for those of you who have not, the links to a couple are here:

Listening to shame | Brené Brown

The power of vulnerability | Brené Brown

Peace as always,


Bonnie Randall Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About Divinity & The Python

Bonnie Randall Divinity and the Python
Divinity - Where deception and desire both hide in the dark...

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  1. I seem to be your polar opposite! I thoroughly enjoy reading about despicable people (although I can't judge the ones in Gone Home—that one's still on my reading list). The summary you gave of Gone Home and its characters interests me much more than the excerpts of The Wife Between Us you posted. I'm more intrigued by characters that aren't immediately relatable to me, because then I get to pick their brains, metaphorically speaking, to figure out how they work. By contrast, I don't need to do anything to understand the embarrassment over not knowing how to pronounce something. I've been there. No work required, no intrigue offered.

    (I also often find myself relating far more to despicable or bad characters, which I suppose says something about me, but I like to think it's because I have a healthy awareness of my own flaws.)

    It's really interesting how some people look for one thing in fiction and some people look for the exact opposite, isn't it?

    1. It is a fantastically subjective landscape, no question!