Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Bond Between Reader and Character

How does Sherri L. Smith create a bond in her new novel, Flygirl, between her main character, Ida Mae Jones, and the reader?

She shares a secret with the reader-- a secret that, if discovered by any of the other characters, could mean serious injury, shame, or worse for Ida Mae.

What Ida Mae wants most in this novel, which is set in the South during World War II, is to fly planes to help her brother fight the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

But Ida Mae is black, and, though the WASP–the Women Airforce Service Pilots–is seeking capable women to help fly planes from manufacturing plants to the men who’ll fly them into battle, the WASP won’t accept black women.

So what does Ida Mae do? She passes herself off as white during the initial interview and in the training sessions in Texas that follow.

Here’s how Ida Mae describes the interview to her Mama after she returns home:
“Just listen to me. Listen to me!” I all but shout, and Mama stops in her tracks. I’ve never raised my voice to her and gotten away with it. But I’m not a little girl anymore.
“Somebody has got to do something. So I went. I put my name on Daddy’s license and I went and got an interview. And you know what? I wasn’t hiding anything when I went into that room and sat face-to-face with an actual woman Army Air Forces pilot. And do you know what she saw? Not a Negro woman, not a white woman, not a high yellow. But a pilot, Mama. A good pilot that they need. Don’t you see? This is what Daddy used to fly for. The chance to be everything other than the color of his skin.”
It’s a very risky move for a black woman like Ida Mae to take during a time of segregation, but that’s what gives the story its source of tension.

Will Ida Mae succeed or fail in her role as a woman pilot?

And, more pressing, will her secret be discovered if she happens to forget her act or when someone recognizes her?

Smith shares Ida Mae’s story in such a way that readers can’t help feeling sympathy for her... and that’s the secret of the bond that is created between Ida Mae and the reader.

We understand--on an emotional level--Ida Mae’s love of flying. How? Because we know it’s in the air that she feels closest to her father, who taught her to fly his crop duster before he died in a farm accident.

And we understand on an emotional level, too, the unfairness of a society that treats people differently simply because of the color of their skin.

It isn’t easy to build a bond of sympathy between character and reader, but it’s crucial if you want to develop a character who can touch your reader's heart.

For more on developing sympathetic characters, visit:

For more on Sherri L. Smith and her work, visit:

For more on Flygirls, visit:

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