Monday 9 July 2012

Making Your Readers Care Like Your Characters Care

In any story the main character will have something on their mind. They will worry and fret based on how important ‘the thing’ is to them.

Just because they happen to think this thing is worth obsessing over or getting upset about doesn’t mean the reader will also.

Showing the character really worked up about this thing won’t automatically make the reader feel the same way.

Going inside the characters mind and showing how concerned they are is not going to cut it either. It may add something, but on its own it’s not enough.

Do you know someone who really cares about their football team? I mean really, really cares. When you see how upset they are when their team loses, does that make you care about their team?

In fact, as soon as you see someone really upset, the first thing you say is “What’s wrong?” And your reaction will vary depending on what they say. Dumped by a boyfriend? Well, I’m going to need to know what kind of guy he was. An ass? A boy going away to college? A fiancée? A soldier not wanting her to wait?

My point is we judge based on the situation, not on the reaction. Obviously, the severity of the reaction will affect how you deal with the person (or as a reader how you expect other characters to deal with them) and it will also affect your opinion of the character, but in terms of how interested you are to see how things pan out, the character’s reaction is pretty low down on the list.

What you need to do is let the reader experience the situation, not the emotion. If the situation is worth the emotion, the emotion will emerge by itself.

This becomes a problem when you start your story with a character who is upset about something which is secret and that you as the writer don’t want to reveal until later.

You can do this. It helps if you have other things going on in the story so it’s not just a character biting their nails for 200 pages, but building up tension in a mystery that way is perfectly reasonable. However, you should bear in mind that once you’ve established the character’s level of concern, reiterating it, going over it from many different angles, giving the character long internal monologues about their fears and worries, won’t make the reader more intrigued.

A woman had a nasty accident that made her lose her memory. She knows she had a milkshake the day of the accident, but can’t recall if it was chocolate or strawberry, and is obsessed with trying to remember which. You could get inside her head and show how much she wants to remember this detail, how she dreams about it, convinces herself of one answer, than the other.  But so what? It’s just a random detail.

Let’s say she’s a twin and her sister died in the accident, and she can’t remember which twin she is, and the only difference between them is that one liked chocolate and one liked strawberry... As soon as you see the reason for the behaviour, you’re level of interest changes (even in a stupid example like this one).  

Once the character’s issue seems to be leading somewhere with ramifications for the rest of the story, interest gets piqued.

The problem though is that if the reader is not aware of the ramifications, perhaps the character is focused on the immediate issue (trying to remember what happened) and the writer plans to reveal the consequences later, that’s no good to the reader.

For the reader to care about the characters predicament they need to know the predicament, not just that the character has one, or how big a deal they think it is.

You may think, Oh, but if I get people’s curiosity all amped up, then they’ll get a much bigger kick out of finding out what’s behind it all.

That’s true if this is the central mystery of the story, the big thing everyone is trying to work out, but if it’s just a minor part of a bigger whole, then you’re just stringing things out. And what you’ll end up with is an ending where you find you have to provide answers to twelve different mysteries in the last ten pages.

So, if you want the reader to care, tell them what the character cares about and why, and what they plan to do about it. How much they care will then be self-evident. One of the easiest ways to do this is giving your main character someone to talk to about the problem. 
If you found this post interesting, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Show the motivation behind the feelings. Or rather, let the reader experience it. Check! Yeah, sometimes it's easy to forget that.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great food for thought, I was just thinking on this aspect but was pretty clueless about how to go about it. Your post clears up quite a few cobwebs from my brain.

mooderino said...

@Alex-it's extra work but well worth it.

@Rachna-glad to help. Watch out for spiders.

Fairchild said...

This touches on some difficulties I have with crafting an emotional arc/narrative. I know why something is important to the character, I state why it's important several times, but it always feels weak, ineffective.

I will keep this post in mind once I get out of the first draft.

Jay Noel said...

I struggled with this - especially when writing about a female character. My editors said she was a man in a woman's body!


So I had to bring to life the emotions - and really show them to the reader.

Rusty Carl said...

I think you've outlined one of the biggest problems writers face as they try to tell compelling stories. I know I do. I took notes.

Nancy Thompson said...

You always have the best advice, Moody. I'm a firm believer in letting the reader fully experience the character's emotional state, but in the same way I'm an open book, so is my story. I just can't hide the motivation, even for a short time. Good thing I write thrillers instead of mysteries!

(Tweeted it!)

mooderino said...

@Fairchild-often what a character is prepared to do is a better reflection of how important it is.

@Jay-although if you were writing erotica, a man in a woman's body would be ideal...

@Rusty-glad you took note, there will be a test.

@Nancy-thanks for the tweet!

mshatch said...

This was the perfect post for me today. thank you!

mooderino said...

@mshatch-you're very welcome.

Anonymous said...

Great, now I've got an idea about a twin surviving an accident but still suffering amnesia - now she's not sure which twin she is. By itself or with a milkshake it's not very exciting, but there's a lot of potential there!

Oh, and the other pointers are good too ;-)

mooderino said...

@jason-one day I'm going to take all the stupid examples I make up for these posts and put them all in one story. Then you'll be sorry.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think emotion is easier to capture in first-person than it is in third-person (the point-of-view that I choose to write in). I like to make my stories more about "the story" and less about the "human interest". I know you can do both but it seems like they war with each other, especially given the restraint of word count. If you only have 80,000 words to tell a story, and your story involves A LOT of comings and goings and is intricate, it becomes more difficult to put emotion into a story.

EXAMPLE: Take a look at Dune. It's considered a masterpiece of science-fiction. Yet do we ever really see Paul Atreides become emotional? Even the death of his father doesn't really evoke a strong emotion in the reader. It's simply something that has "come to pass". Yet we continue reading because the world and the story are what is pulling us along. No one reads Dune because they want to feel emotionally connected to Paul.

mooderino said...

@Michael-it's been a while since I read Dune so I can't really remember how emotional it was. Mind you parental events rarely evoke an emotion in me, although that's probably more to do with my view of parents (especially mine).

Caroline Gerardo said...

Thinking about this all day, wow.

mooderino said...

@Caroline-if you mean donuts, then me too.

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