I hope you enjoyed the last post from Nik Perring and will consider reading some of his fabulous stories. Flash Fiction is a form that’s fun to try, too. It will give you good practice in telling a whole story in a concise way. Today we are back to our group of posts on characters…
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader” (Robert Frost)
Problem: I don’t know how to get readers to care about my characters?
In my last post on character I talked about ways in which you can bring a character alive. Readers have to believe that characters are living breathing people to care about them. Think about someone, a presenter for example, that you might have seen on television that you haven’t taken much notice of. He or she probably doesn’t mean anything to you, other than the guy who waves his arms around or the girl with the strange hair. If you were to see a programme where the same person talked about the difficulties in their life, their hopes and fears and you felt sympathy for them as a result, you are likely to care more about them than you did before.
Characters, too, have to elicit some kind of emotional response from readers to get them to care. And it IS important that readers care, otherwise they won’t worry when a character gets into difficulties and they won’t be bothered about how it will turn out. There will be no tension to keep their interest. Readers want someone to identify with, to judge, or approve or disapprove of. Without this there is nothing to stimulate emotion, one of the most important functions of a main character.
Emotion is a universal experience so you will know what it’s like to feel what characters are feeling. Even when the experience in a story is not one you have shared, you can usually find emotions in your own life that feed into an understanding of those in someone else’s.
To create emotion in a reader you need to feel it, too. Emotion doesn’t mean melodrama; it just means feeling. If you can convey authentic feeling to a reader your writing will become more powerful, your characters more believable. If you aren’t in touch with how your characters are feeling, you can’t be sure how they will act and you may assign them an action that isn’t credible in the circumstances. The characters will come across as fake and the reader will stop reading.
To create an emotional response:
It is best not to write about a character’s own feelings, or reactions.
She climbed out of the boat and followed him uphill, searching for a patch of level ground. She came across some wild Violets and Stitchwort and showed them to him but was disappointed when he didn’t share her delight. He put down the haversack and began to unpack the food. She was even more disappointed that he didn’t mention the wine she’d packed. She started to think this wasn’t a good idea, that she shouldn’t have come. She remembered how, in the old days, they would picnic like this and then make love among the trees.The wild flowers lifted her heart, made her feel that anything was possible. Now he seemed to be drifting away from her.
“What’s the matter.” she asked finally. She needed to know.
“Nothing,” he said. “I’m just relaxing.”
She knew it wasn’t true. She felt let down.
The narrator is very much present in this scene, describing the character’s emotions and deciding for readers which of emotions they need to be exposed to, whereas readers would rather forget about the narrator’s presence and imagine that they are somehow nearby, watching events unfold in front of them, responding in their own way, as if they themselves were in the character’s shoes.
It is best to present an emotional experience by writing a scene and letting the action and dialogue bring out the emotion.
Here is the same scene, written slightly differently:
She climbed out of the boat and followed him uphill, searching for a patch of level ground.
“Look,” she said. “Wild Violets and Stitchwort. And what are these?” Her fingers cradled the calyx of a wild flower she didn’t recognise, among the clover. He looked down at it for several seconds.
“No idea,” he said. He put down the haversack and began to unpack the food. He didn’t mention the wine she’d packed.
“Remember we used to picnic like this? And then make love among the trees? What’s the matter?” she said, when he didn’t reply.
“Nothing,” he said. I’m just relaxing.”
There is no narrator here, telling us that the character is disappointed, that she feels let down, or that he seems detached from her and unwilling to share in her joys but there are subtle clues in the action and dialogue. You don’t have to pack everything a character is feeling into a single scene. You can allow emotions to emerge from quite small beginnings and let them build as the story moves on.
– Get the reader involved early in the story. This is why most stories start with a dramatic scene.
– Create characters that stand to win or lose, to allow readers to take sides, invest in what happens to the characters and to win or lose out emotionally alongside them.
– Give characters an inner life: Thoughts, feelings, insights and desires and remember to show these in speech and action, not in description.
– Remember that emotion will influence a character’s perception. If you are angry with someone you would see things in a different way than if you were grateful, upset, or infatuated.
– Keep in mind that what people do or say may differ from what is going on in their hearts and minds.
Remember an incident in your own life where you felt something strongly. See the event again in detail in your mind’s eye. Go deep into the detail of it to feel exactly how you felt at that time. Now try giving this same emotion to a character.
Write a scene with two characters doing something together. It could be decorating a room, setting a table or completing a task at work. Something is not quite right between them. Decide on what the problem is but don’t mention it in the writing. Try showing hints of it through what the characters say and do. This is just an exercise, with underdeveloped characters, to get you used to the idea of showing emotion through dialogue and action. If you know your own characters very well in the story you are writing, their emotional responses will come more naturally to you.
Next Post: It looks as if I need to know my characters much better to understand their feelings and desires. Will a character checklist help?