Bringing characters to life

Today, as part of the research I’m doing for this little writing project of mine, I read a lot about this one day in the Second World War: December 16, 1943.

Why that day,  you ask? Well, according to our family records, this was the day that Allan Reid Cameron, my great-great-uncle, died while on a training exercise. His plane was brought down because of heavy fog that impaired visibility and led the pilot to crash land near or in Lincolnshire, England. All crew members on the plane perished. 

Having this fragment of information, I had the pressing itch to know more. So, with a date in hand, I started researching the night of December 16, 1943.

On this day, after two weeks of respite, the Bomber Command was tasked with raiding Berlin. They would take off in the evening, fly across to the continent, and drop a horrific number of bombs on the city, and then return to their home bases.

There was one notable thing about this day, though. The weather in England was particularly English. By all accounts it was grey, damp, and there was fog listed on every forecast. That fog turned out to be the reason why Allan Cameron—why his and three other crews were sent out to train in those conditions is not clear—as well as that of 321 other airmen, most of which were returning from Berlin. 29 craft crashed through the fog, which made it so there was no ‘below’ the clouds, and thus eliminated all elements of visibility. That number is much much higher than that of those that perished in Berlin during the raid.

While on the one hand I find myself perplexed and angry by the fact that these airmen were forced to face these conditions as a result of decisions made by their superiors, I’m also confronted by an attempt to imagine and understand the thoughts and feelings—of fear, remorse, anger, acceptance?—these men might have faced. What did my great-great-uncle think of in his last few moments? Was it of his impending doom? Of the rest of the men on his crew? Or of his new wife, Nora? Or did he think of his family, eagerly awaiting his return in Argentina?

How do I write about that? How do I let myself embody him just long enough to capture a glimpse of his experience? How do I portray my fictionalized understanding of him faithfully?

In “Letters to a Young Writer” by Colum McCann—a book I recommend to anyone wanting to write or currently writing—McCann tells us that “[we] should be able to close [our] eyes and dwell inside that character’s body.” It requires a massive act of empathy. Tomorrow, or the next day, once I muster up the courage to do so, I’m going to have to sit in front of a blank page and invite myself into Allan’s body, into his mind, and somehow channel him into words.

The prospect terrifies me. It moves me. It thrills me.

What if I can, in fact, do this character justice?

But, also, what if I fail him?

All this is to say that I think this little project of mine is starting to take on a life of its own, and as such, it’s starting to weigh that much more on me.

But in a good (great) way.

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