Fiction writing: Transferring emotion from author to character to reader

Fiction writing: Transferring emotion from author to character to reader

Think about the last time you got choked up, or cried, over a book. Was it over the end of the last Harry Potter book? Was it something from the Twilight series? How about when key characters died in Mitford? How about Little Women, or Where the Red Fern Grows?

Now think about what it was about those books that made you so upset. It was because characters died, right? But hold on. People die in Tom Clancy and Grisham books, and it’s not so upsetting. In fact, in some of their books, people die by the truckloads, and readers don’t bat an eye. Why is this?

The difference is good character development. In thriller novels, the characters have just enough depth to get by. The real focus is on the plot: will the young lawyer go to work for the mafia, or will he fight back? Will a plot in the Middle East blow up into World War III? Who cares about the characters? We know that half of them will get killed in interesting ways because we know the formula, and the author makes very little effort to get the reader to connect to these characters.

But if you read a drama or a romance novel, those authors have to get you to connect to the characters or the book will fail. So you are presented with a heartbroken young woman who meets the man of her dreams, or the angry, angst-ridden teen who discovers that he has the power within himself to change his situation. These characters are carefully constructed to appeal to you on an emotional level. As you read, you subconsciously think, "Yes, this person is like me," or, "I admire this character because I want to do those same things." So as you watch this character succeed or fail through the course of the plot, you cheer them on, because you have identified with that character. Once something in that character resonates with you, you have made the emotional link. Now the author can make you laugh, or worse, make you cry.

On the author’s end, this looks like a daunting task at first. How do you create a character that will create such empathy in a reader? It’s easy. You create a character that you empathize with. If you are writing a character who makes you feel protective of them, then that will transfer to the reader. If you are writing a character who makes you laugh, they will make the reader laugh, too. This is accomplished by good characterization. Beyond describing the character’s looks, you must convey the way they think by how they talk and act. If you study people, then you will have all kinds of fun material to put in your story. If your characters sound like real people, they will be that much more believable.

On the other hand, if you are writing a character who is nothing but a name on a page, and who you intend to kill off on page 42, and whom you vaguely hate, the reader will feel no connection with them. If you are trying to write an entire book with characters you hate, your reader will hate them, too. And probably put the book down and never finish it.

Never try to force an emotion on your reader. If you get caught up in whether or not the reader will feel upset, or happy, or angry, then you wind up neglecting the primary vehicle for transmitting the feelings: your characters. If you have a character whom you empathize with, then you have probably built empathy with the reader, too. And now, if your character has to be angry, or sad, or depressed, then your reader will feel the same things. Not all readers are the same, of course. What makes one person cry may not even stir another person.

Write things that you would like to read. If you write characters who intrigue you and whom you want to spend lots of time with, chances are that your readers will like them, too.


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