Fictional characters can teach us to empathize with real people


The soon to be released YA novel The Scent of Rain follows two teens running from abuse.  The plight of fictional characters can help readers relate to those who have vastly different lives than their own.

“What do you write about?” people often ask when they discover you’re an author.

I write about real situations that I often take directly from current events. As far as subject matter is concerned, I’ve penned novels dealing with sabotage, murder, post traumatic stress, religion, mental illness, archaeology, and the black market sale of antiquities, all topics I enjoyed researching and writing about.

But my soon-to-be-released Young Adult novel, The Scent of Rain, was different. While the information that led to the creation of the plot and characters came to me in vastly different ways, the subject matter was equally disturbing and difficult to compose.

The story in this case centers around two Arizona teenagers living in their own personal versions of hell. While the children are fictionalized, their stories are real. How do I know? First, I’m a foster mom to three sons and a teacher in a Title I school where hundreds of our students have passed through the troubled doors of the euphemistically named Arizona Department of Child Safety.  Seventeen-year-old Adan is the face of all the children I’ve come to know who have dealt with the abuses one can confront when the state becomes a parent.

Then there is Rose, who is living under the oppressive strictures of the Fundamentalist Mormon community in Colorado, City, Arizona. I knew little about the reclusive FLDS cult other than the occasional news clips or photos showing women and young girls in their long pastel-colored prairie dresses with athletic shoes peeking out incongruously beneath their hems, hair coiled in odd bunches, often clutching babies. I felt compelled to learn more about the group, reading everything I could find concerning the people who reside in the northwest corner of the state where I’ve lived for 27 years.

I invited Flora Jessop to my home, to discover what being raised in Colorado City was like. Jessop escaped twice from the FLDS and has spent her life rescuing girls and women from the cult. I listened as she calmly explained that females are subjected to all kinds of abuse, surprisingly, often at the hands of other women. Forced marriages are the norm. Later I would learn that some child brides were as young as 12. Children are uneducated and cut off from the outside world, with no access to phones, TV, radio, or the Internet.

As a former reporter, I am a seasoned interviewer, but I was not prepared for the stories Jessop told me. I barely remember speaking. I took a raft of notes on a legal pad. My recorder rolled for three hours. But I was never able to bring myself to listen to that recording. I didn’t have to. The stories stayed with me. Rose is the result.

Donna Essner is the acquisitions editor for the Amphorae Publishing Group, which will launch The Scent of Rain on March 28. While other publishers shied away from the story, Essner believes the themes in the book need to be addressed.

“Not only does this story show child abuse—in this particular case, a mother’s misguided sense of religious beliefs, based on what she’s been taught—it’s about forced marriage,” she said. “It’s about how one individual—a charismatic—manipulates, controls, and terrorizes a community of people based on their religious beliefs, to do his will, not God’s. Along with this, the story broaches what often happens to a good kid, taken away from a good parent, and put into the hands of the foster-care system, only to become a victim of abuse within the system meant to protect him. It’s about the heartlessness of law.”

While I did not write The Scent of Rain specifically for young readers, Essner convinced me that, despite the subject matter, publishing the book as a YA novel made perfect sense.

“Books are marketed according to the age of the protagonist and the projected audience,” she said. “Even so, a younger reader may want to read the book. Readers of YA, too, are not always within that projected age range. Many, like me, enjoy reading about our younger generations and what affects their lives.”

When I went to Colorado City, playing the part of an average traveler passing through, purchasing groceries at the Mercantile and filling my tank at the only gas station in town, I felt the overt tension, as my companion and I were scrutinized. We talked at length afterward about the fear we saw in people’s eyes, before they turned away, and the fact that, as we wandered through the town, stopping at the fenced-in former public school, the cemetery, and the palatial walled-off estate of the Prophet, Warren Jeffs – who by all accounts still controls the community from prison – we sensed we were being followed.

Later, I sometimes struggled when distilling what I’d learned into words, and periodically wondered whether anyone would want to read about the lives of the people imprisoned by the FLDS. In the end, I believed it was important to expose the suffering these people, especially the children, endure. Essner agreed.

“In order to understand human behavior and grow spiritually and intellectually, we all, as individuals, a world community, and society as a whole, must study the lives of others—their beliefs, their daily lives and habits, thoughts and actions,” she said. “Sometimes, the only way we are able to do this, is in reading fictional accounts of peoples’ lives and choices, as in The Scent of Rain. For those who may not have ever experienced physical and mental abuse, reading about it through the eyes of a fictional character enables any reader to understand, form an opinion, and hopefully, empathize with the characters. More importantly, in reading about abuse, we, to some degree, live it alongside the characters, and thus learn to recognize how it manifests itself, and most importantly, to take action against it.”

 The Scent of Rain will be released on March 28, 2017. The book’s launch will take place at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore at 4014 N Goldwater Blvd #101, Scottsdale, Arizona on April 2, 2017 at 2:00 PM. 


2 thoughts on “Fictional characters can teach us to empathize with real people

  1. sharonledwith says:

    What a poignant and truthful post, Anne. Someone needs to speak for those who have been so oppressed, they’ve lost a sense of themselves. You’re the perfect candidate to give voice to these kids. Cheers and thumbs up! Wishing you all the best and hope you make a difference to the lives of others!


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