Monday, December 12, 2011

Are You Getting to the Heart of Your Characters?

I recently critiqued a book of the crime / terrorism ilk. The writing was sublime, but three things came across very strongly to me:

1. It doesn't matter how dramatic your events are, if they don't carry emotional weight, they quickly become two-dimensional words on a page. Otherwise known as "Meh."

2. If the character's actions aren't consistent with the information the author provides, their intentions and motivations appear flimsy. As I reader I no longer trust the protagonist.

3. It doesn't matter how tight and smooth your prose is, if your character looks dim-witted or gullible, I won't care about what happens to him / her.

Now, I can assure you, the very talented writer whose manuscript I read never intended for their protagonist to appear implausible, gullible or inconsistent. But that's our eternal problem, isn't it? Communicating what's in our heads to what's on the page.

So here's a few tips from my experience. Please feel free to share any you've read or discovered in the comments:

1. Never, ever, explain. If you're getting critique notes that indicate readers find the character, motivation, or plot implausible, resist the urge to explain in the narration. If they aren't convinced by the picture, they won't be convinced by your reasoning. Take the time and energy to more fully develop your protagonist, your villiains, your world building... whatever it takes to show the reader why the things that are happening are totally belieavable.

2. Don't develop character traits in narration (at least, not primarily). Let your characters meet situations which allow them to demonstrate how they think through their actions and reactions. If your character is short tempered, don't have another character say "Gee whiz, I sure don't wanna talk to George. He gets mad so easy!" Instead let George snap at students in his classroom, or make cutting comments to his wife. Little things that can be woven into the rest of the plot as it's progressing.

3. Trust your readers to understand. Most readers have been reading a long time. Consciously or not, they understand the rules. When stunningly handsome man walks into the room, you don't have to say "He was STUNNING" to get the message across. Describe him (creatively, if you can) and let us gauge his hubba-hubba-factor by the heroine's reaction to him. Then, when Stunningly Handsome Hero throws a dismissive remark over his shoulder at the Heroine, don't explain to the reader how that felt. Just show her reaction. We get it. Really.

4. "Emotion" is more important than "Explosion". Seriously. It doesn't matter what the emotion is - it could be fear, tension, revulsion just as easily as the wistful ache of unrequited love. What is important is that the emotional journey is accessible. It's something the reader can relate to. Because then you can take that character anywhere, to face anything, and the reader will go with you eagerly. But if you depend on nuclear devastation, or bloody murder to carry a book, the reader will quickly tire. They're reading to live the danger / tension / fear / love vicariously. But they have to care first. (If you aren't sure about this one, consider the difference between your reaction to hearing a murder story on the news compared to hearing your best friend's spouse was killed. When you care, you're invested. Deeply. Not just for a few minutes of tragic empathy).

If you take the time to develop your writing to create these effects via the story (rather than just telling the reader how to think and feel), your story will love you for it. And so will your readers.

Your Turn: Any questions? Or do you have other tips to offer to help other writers make their stories more authentic / emotional?


  1. Ah, emotion and motivation. This is something I had been having trouble with lately. For one or two scenes, I feared I was holding back my narrator's emotions. And for a friend's story I had been reading, the narrator's sentence structure didn't exactly reflect her emotional state.

    -reads through again-

  2. Just what I needed as I start another round of revisions (for character depth, empathy, etc.)Thanks! <3

  3. It all boils down to show me don't tell me. Great!

  4. I whole-heartedly agree. It is show and don't tell, just as I've learned.
    Thanks for this, I'll have to let friends know about this post. It's very good!

  5. I totally agree with your comments but I do wonder whether everyone would agree with 'emotion not explosion' argument. The only reason I say this is that there are thousands of action movies out there that are all explosions and very little emotion. Do you think there is a genre equivalent for these people in books or do you think fans of those types of movies don't read much? In thinking about it, I'm leaning towards the latter.

  6. Cally - This is nothing more than my opinion, but I do see 'action' books out there, but I have a feeling they tend toward the "smarter" crime or military themes. And some fantasy, I suppose.

    I suspect their readerships are predominantly male, and the emotions they focus on are along the lines of revenge, hatred, ambition, glory, etc. They are not devoid of emotion, only focused on different ones.

  7. Yes, I think I would agree with that - still have strong emotion, but perhaps not the same ones we come across mostly in YA. ;-)