Writing Prompt: Characterization and Empathy

Writing Prompt: Imagine your protagonist looking at childhood pictures of your antagonist.  What details stand out that make your protagonist truly empathize with the other?

In my current WIP, my heroine Ima DeCostas is a woman of mystery and dangerous secrets.  Her mistake?

Falling for the wrong man.

Ima discovers, far too late, that her man has secrets of his own.  In the following scene, Ima searches for clues regarding the whereabouts of the lover she knows as Kyle.

It felt kind of strange going through Kyle’s things, without him being here.  He’d always been such a private person.  I respected that about him, it was just something else we shared in common.  And yet here I was, violating that privacy in the basest of manner.  The ends justifying the means just didn’t settle with me at all.

I reached up into the closet and lifted the aged pine box from the top shelf. I’d always admired it.  It seemed out of place in the possession of a man who valued all things shiny, new and disposable.  There was history there, locked away in the aged deep brown pine; the patina worn to a smooth finish.  The bronze metal hinges were stained and creaked as I slowly lifted the lid.

I’m not quite sure what I expected to find.  A gun?  Money?

Instead, the old box was filled with an assortment of papers and photographs.  Some were wrapped in plastic; others had been left exposed to the air and had yellowed over time.

I grabbed a stack of black and white photographs.  I didn’t recognize anyone in the first three and quickly shuffled them to the back.  The fourth was a formal pose of a family of four, two adults and two children.  The four of them, in the traditional pose and severe dress made the picture look almost like a Norman Rockwell painting, in its stark simplicity.

I recognized the youngest child as Kyle right off.  He looked to be about ten years old at the time. That wild shock of yellow hair and the angry glint in his eyes had not changed or mellowed in the twenty or so years since the photograph had been taken.  I traced a finger over one bruised eye. Not even the grainy black and white could mask the swelling and purpling on that young face.  I had the impression of restlessness and impatience in the glare he directed into the camera.  I figure he would have burst from that chair at any second had it not been for the restraining hand of the woman; presumably his mother.

Curious, I peered at her a bit closer.  Kyle favored her and had inherited herthick blond locks , as well as her prominent cheek bones, full mouth and sharp features.  He didn’t talk about her. I’d asked after her only once and the discussion had led to the one and only argument we’d ever had.  I never asked again.  But one night, he came to my apartment, drunk.  It was so rare to see him out of control of himself that I didn’t know what to think. His mood had been so strange and at times he looked at me as if he hated the ground on which I stood.  Before I could escort him out, —who the fuck did he think he was looking at me that way? – he gathered me up in his arms and wept. Violent tremors coursed through his body and I held him until the storm ceased.  When it was over, he said simply, “I got word today that my mama was dead.”

There was a story there, but I didn’t push.  I figured he’d tell me when he was ready.

I wish I’d asked more questions.

The other child I assumed was Kyle’s older brother.  What was his name?  I flipped the picture over but it was blank.  Justin?  Jamie? James, yeah, that was it.  He’d been killed in some freak accident a few years back.  The siblings bore little resemblance to each other but I knew of Kyle’s admiration for his big brother in the almost reverent way he spoke of him.

Kyle’s daddy was dressed in a dark suit.  His hair was combed away from his forehead and lacquered down with hair gel.  Him, Kyle spoke of often.  One of the son’s kinder descriptions was ‘that fuckin’ bigot’.  His unsmiling gaze met mine across the celluloid and it was as if I could feel his intolerance and disdain like a slap in the face.

A fresh wave of anger rushed over me; I added one more in a long string of complaints I held against Kyle.  I’d just learned more about him than he’d volunteered in the entire duration of our friendship. But I have to be honest, at least with myself.  I hadn’t wanted to know more.

It just made things were simpler that way.

But now, Kyle was gone and the FBI were knocking at my door.

The FBI, for God’s sake.

And while I didn’t know for sure, somehow or other, I knew the answer lie in the old pine box.

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