MAKING READERS CARE
“If the reader doesn’t care about your story people, he’ll never make it past the opening scene or the first chapter.”
This quote is from Chapter 8, called ‘Characters and Emotion’ of the book ‘Writing with Emotion, Tension, & Conflict: Techniques for Crafting an Expressive and Compelling Novel,’ by Cheryl St. John. What I love about this is that, in writing, one of the most fundamental and difficult things to do is to create characters that people give a crap about. Specifically, your protagonist.
My most recent novel, a suspense book, includes a protagonist who starts the novel by being released from prison. There are four different point-of-view characters and they all, according to several people who read the book, lack ‘relatability.’ This has been a big learning experience for me. When I edit someone’s novel, it’s easy for me to see, as a book editor, the flaws in their characterization. And I can point that out. If they craft a compelling character who has emotions and who has a moral compass, for the most part I can identify with that character, ergo I care what happens to that character, ergo I keep reading because I have made an emotional investment.
But, on the other hand, if I feel no real emotional connection to that character, and/or if they totally lack a moral compass or have zero relatability—in other words, if I cannot empathize with them at least a little—then, likely, I’ll stop reading. Now, literary agents, editors, and publishers know this, so you’ll rarely see a commercial or mainstream literary book on the market that doesn’t at least have some connection. But creating this connection can be a real hurdle for some writers. It has been for me.
Remember: It’s not good enough, especially in 2015, to simply create a good story, with a forceful plot, a ton of stakes, and an incredible journey complete with metaphor and symbolism. You have to add that extra layer and it comes directly out of character.
“[there is the]…importance of building inherent conflict into the characters, but we also have to build in emotional involvement for the reader.”
The above quote (again Cheryl St. John) speaks to my point. You can have a killer plot. You can have a very strong set of stakes. You can have one of the most solid settings ever revealed. But if you don’t have that emotional connection, that bond between the reader and the protagonist…you’re ultimately doomed. Think Hunger Games, or any book on the market, really. Anne Perry, Stephen King, Paul Auster, John Green (The Fault in Our Stars), Rex Pickett, whatever. You need that emotional connection to cement the reader to the character. If you rewrite and work on those first three chapters, making sure you create that bond, then readers will care and you can have more leniency in terms of the other stuff (not that that means you’re off the hook). But plot IS character; that’s the truth. Your plot doesn’t mean anything if you have flat, one-dimensional characters. Plot is the foundation upon which real, relatable, full, rich, layered and complex characters should stand.
Another thing I love about the above quote is this idea, with regard to characters, of not only that emotional connection, but, as Cheryl St. John refers to it: ‘inherent conflict.’ This is also key. Think about it. Conflict creates tension. Tension, in turn, creates a need to know for the reader. The reader wants to turn the page to find out what will happen next because there is something that’s going to happen to a character they care about. When something is going to happen to a stranger, how much do you care? For most of us, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, the answer is: not much. Right? But if something is going to happen, good or bad, to our sibling or parent, suddenly we care. That’s the selfishness and humanness of people in the world. But the point is: You have to create a character like that reader’s sibling or parent; they have to care. And from there, use that conflict to create tension, etc. Grip us, then move us.
Try rewriting some of your first chapter. Take a scene and ask yourself: Do I care about this character? If not, why do I think that’s the case? What can I do to change that feeling? Are they unlikeable? Un-relatable? Do they lack a moral compass? After you’ve figured that piece out, find that same scene or another one and ask: Does this scene have inherent conflict and tension? It doesn’t have to be obvious, clear, or physical. Tension can be very subtle and in the background. But, if the scene lacks a sense of tension, then try to add some. Like, for example, if there are two characters chatting over coffee and everything is fine, try altering that scene: Maybe they argue over something. Maybe a secret is revealed that will dramatically alter the protagonist’s perspective or life. Maybe one character is hiding something. Maybe there’s a bomb planted under the table. Maybe a third character is two tables over and is recording the conversation. Maybe there is internal/external dissonance, meaning one character is saying one thing but thinking another. Play around with this; rewrite and show it to someone you trust, asking their opinion. Maybe ask that person to read the old version against the new version; ask which they like better and ask if they can identify why.
Give it a shot.
“You said it. Let’s edit.”
***I am a developmental book editor. I look at novels and memoir and focus on plot, structure, tone, voice, dialogue, character-development, etc. I charge 1.8 cents/word. If you are looking for this type of edit please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. My turnaround right now is July/August, 2015, unless spots open prior to then due to drop outs, which happen fairly frequently as a result of many things, including finances and lack of desire to make hefty suggested changes.
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