Friday, March 4, 2011

How to make readers care about your characters

Hi everyone! Over the last few weeks I've been working my way through the three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I absolutely loved it! And, as so many writers do, I started thinking 'I wish I could write like that!' And then I had to kick myself and the internal conversation in my head took a turn in this direction (oddly taking on a bit of my dad's voice): 'You idiot! (that's all my, not my dad) You can write like that! Just figure out what made you love it so much and work it into your own writing!'

So, over the last few days, I've been doing a lot of thinking (and blog searching). I've finally figured out why I love Avatar so much: I genuinely sympathized with the characters. After a little more reflection, I realized that the scenes I was most invested in and remembered the most (thank you David Powers King for putting me on the right track here) are the ones where characters show genuine emotion. When the characters showed strong emotion for a good reason, I was right there with them.

Now, I need to clarify the difference between emotion and sentimentality. Emotion is a natural human feeling or reaction to circumstance. It's something that everyone experiences and deals with in some way (even those who profess to be unemotional; they're just dealing with the emotions by shoving them aside and ignoring them). Sentimentality, on the other hand, is affected by the author; it's forced, false and often excessive. An old professor of mine put it this way: emotion arises naturally from circumstances that are critical to the story and help show or mold a character's personality; sentimentality is there for no other reason than to make the reader feel a certain way (i.e. it doesn't advance the story or develop the character.

Here's my take on writing real emotion (or a precis of it):

  1. Genuine emotion arises when you put a nice guy through the ringer. Guilt, broken hearts, conflicting desires and the like might sound formulaic, but they are some of the most common sources of strong emotion in real life.
  2. An emotional response MUST be consistent with the character. If a character reacts in an uncharacteristic way, readers will notice and they will not approve.
    1. Caveat: a character may struggle with an emotional reaction that conflicts with his/her morals. For example, a person who is normally compassionate and forgiving may struggle with a desire for revenge. This sets up an excruciating conflict for the character that most people can relate to.
  3. Emotional situations are amplified when the character has something to lose (or possibly gain). Make the decision/reaction a critical one.
Now the big question: how do you create real emotion in your stories? What do you find works the best? If you need some help, you might visit writewithhonor or plottopunctuation. These two blogs have really helped me understand emotion in literature.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree that the emotional response has to be consistent with the character. It's one of the hardest things about writing, I think! Sometimes it helps me to first think about how I would emotionally react in a situation, and then compare that to how the character would act. For some reason, it helps me to have the contrast with myself-- I guess it makes it more real to me.