In 2006 I was commissioned to write a book for children with cancer. I called the book Peppermint Ward and it was my first publication for children. It was also the first time I realised I felt sorry for a character. Somehow, writing for adults (a novel and several short stories published in the 1990s) just didn’t evoke the same feelings.
Ten year old Sam was the main character of Peppermint Ward and there were three other children to show the effects and treatments of four kinds of cancer. As a Special Needs teacher I had taught terminally ill children. I had also had a child of my own on a cancer ward briefly, fortunately with a happy outcome and various friends who had suffered and some who had died from cancer, as well as my Dad. I had plenty of experience to draw upon in the writing of this book.
But putting Sam through the ravages of bone cancer was a whole new experience for me. I experienced feelings of actual guilt as the story developed along with the excellent illustrations by the talented, Kim Toohey, progressed and I could see Sam’s deterioration. At the end of the book Sam has survived and goes home and it is always this part which brings tears to my eyes. A whole new experience, feeling sorry for a character I had invented.
Since Peppermint Ward I have published short stories for children and two Young Adult novels and have experienced the same feelings on more than one occasion. Putting my young people into impossible situations, politically, socially and romantically, has evoked very strong feelings. Am I feeling sorry for my younger self? For children and teenagers I have worked with? For my own children?
It is a difficult thing to understand and probably doesn’t warrant digging too deep. But one thing I am sure of. As a writer, evoking strong and lasting feelings about your manuscript is a good barometer of how deeply you will probably affect your reader. That’s why we write – to evoke response and engage the reader in the journey we have sent our characters on.
Even if the emotional price for us is perhaps sometimes a bit high.
Who do you feel sorry for in your stories?