Friday, July 19, 2013

Are Your Characters Responsive?

I had a rather unhappy reading experience the other day. And it taught me a great lesson in writing:

The reader uses secondary character responses to gauge their understanding of the story. And more, to help them feel what the characters are feeling (which is the gold we all want to plumb when reading).

You see, I read a book in which the writer had excellent talent for plotting, writing tight, and creating interesting characters. In fact, in all aspects except one, the writing was admirable.

Unfortunately, the writer forgot one simple step in each scene which killed the book for me: none of the characters were shown to "react" to what was happening, unless they were the narrator and the response was given in internal dialogue.

That as the somewhat complex plot unfolded and the daring romance was ignited, I kept getting lost.

When the hero and heroine enjoyed their first kiss, it was a thing of passion and excitement. Unfortunately, since the heroine was narrating, I only got to see how she responded to it. As soon as their lips parted, the hero was seen to step back into dialogue as if nothing had happened.

And I do mean that. It wasn't that he was shown to be trying to cover his response with normal behavior. it literally read as if he hadn't reacted at all. The heroine told me he was flustered and surprised, just like her. But there wasn't a skerrit of evidence to back up her claim because the author forgot to SHOW his reaction.

I would have forgiven one or two slip ups, but as the book progressed I found myself more and more confused. It kept feeling to me as if conversations switched topics without one of the party's resolution. Or something dramatic would happen, and I wouldn't realize right away that it was dramatic, because in my minds eyes, all the secondary characters were still sitting on their laurels, non-responsive.

So what did this underline for me? That it isn't only crucial for the narrator of a scene to offer their internal responses to whatever is happening. But it is also IMPERATIVE that any other characters present react too - even if their reaction is to cover the fact that they're reacting.

When the hero and heroine kiss, and the much more experienced hero is taken aback by the power in the lip-lock, he should be seen by the reader to be breathing more quickly than normal, or to be holding himself tensely. Or, perhaps, his eyes say it all - through the observation of the heroine that his pupils have almost overtaken his irises. I don't care how it's done, only that, as a reader, I am given something by which to gauge his reaction when I'm not in his head.

Without these indicators, the reader can't be sure they've accurately understood what has occurred. And in the worst cases (like mine) the book becomes too difficult to follow because the story appears to jump around without anyone ever actually reacting to anything that's happening.

So here's my advice: When your write a scene, check your internal dialogue. Are the narrator's impressions being backed up by the shown body-language (or actions) of the other characters? Even if that body language or reaction is ambiguous, it still needs to be present. After all, it could be that the narrator has the WRONG impression of another character's response. But the only way the reader can have a chance of knowing that, is if the author shows them reasons to second guess.

Yes, these might be very subtle impressions we're talking about, but if you want to let your readers fall into the story rather than spending their time trying to figure out if they've understood what's happening, then make sure you're giving them something to gauge the progress by.

SHOW them what your characters think and feel.

Your Turn: Any questions? What do you think is the greatest challenge about writing character reactions?

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