When Romance University asked me to write their final blog before they go on hiatus, I was beyond honored. But then I was struck by the terror of the blank page. What was I going to blog about? And then it hit me, why not blog about the thing that makes readers pick up a novel in the first place?
That thing is….emotion.
The Appeal of Story
Readers read because they want to feel something. They want to live vicariously through the characters. They want to experience thrills and chills, highs and lows, sorrow and love from the safety of their easy chair. And it’s our job as authors to provide those emotions for them. To accomplish that goal, writers must create the emotional glue that sticks the reader to the characters.
Empathy = Emotional Glue
So who do we do create that emotional glue through empathy? Here are some proven techniques of characterization that automatically increase reader empathy. Those elements are:
- A character with a desperate desire
- A character with flaws
- A character with humanity
- A character who is vulnerable
- A character who suffers
Let’s take a closer look at each element.
- A Character with a Desperate Desire
Nothing makes a reader root for your characters faster than a protagonist with a desperate desire to achieve something. It can be to gain something—a job, a love interest, fame, or perhaps fortune. It can be to find something—a lost child, a buried treasure, or a missing will. It can be to escape—a bad marriage, a war, or an illness. It can be to stop something—an explosion, a crime, or a contagious disease. Or it can be to overcome something—a handicap, a disadvantaged life, or a crippling fear.
Here’s another thing about the desperate desire: It must be concrete. Wanting to be a better man, understanding the meaning of love, or see the face of God isn’t going to work here. The desperate desire has to be something that is quantifiable through the five senses. It’s the external fire, the spark, the engine that propels your protagonist on his journey.
Strong desire is a powerful emotion. It is the heart and soul of the story. A character with a strong desire is someone who will fight for what they want no matter what the obstacles, which in turn creates more emotion.
In his book Writing for Emotional Impact, Karl Iglesias says, “All stories are about people who want or need something. Without a goal, there is no story.”
Ray Bradbury suggests, “First, find out what your hero wants and then just follow him!”
A character that doesn’t want anything is apathetic and doesn’t generate reader interest. So the first step in creating emotions through character is to give your characters a desperate desire.
A few years ago, I received a letter from a woman who’d written a mystery novel. She’d been a magazine editor and journalist for twenty years. She knew her writing was good, but she kept getting rejection after rejection after rejection. Bewildered, she bought a critique from me at a charity auction and asked me to tell her what she was going so wrong.
The book was well written, the plot fresh and unique and the setting was interesting. So what was the problem? The heroine. She handled each obstacle with aplomb. The other characters all ran to her to solve their problems. She was competent, well-liked, good at her job, had perfect hair, never stumbled, never fumbled, never said the wrong thing, never had toilet paper stuck to the bottom of her shoe… You see where I’m going with this? The heroine was perfect. No one could identify with her. That’s why this book wasn’t selling.
Funny thing, even when I pointed this out to the author, she kept insisting her heroine had to be perfect and she gave me a list of reasons why. Guess, what? That author still hasn’t sold her book. Contrast that Janet Evanovich’s mystery heroine with Stephanie Plum. Stephanie is a lousy bail bond agent. She manages to succeed in spite of her ineptitude. Whenever she’s around, cars blow up. She’s divorced and can’t seem to make a relationship work. Stephanie is pretty darn good at embarrassing herself. Janet Evanovich is one of the richest writers in publishing. Is it solely because Stephanie Plum has flaws? No, but that’s certainly part of what endears Stephanie to us.
Human beings are imperfect and so are readers. Readers want to read about characters they can identify with. They want to read about people like themselves. Flaws add tension and drama to a story. Will the heroine overcome her flaw to be a better person, or will she succumb to her flaw and lose everything?
Another purpose of the flaw is to create internal conflict inside the character and conflict = emotion. We’ll talk more about conflict and emotion next week in our intermediate lesson on emotion and plot structure.
3) A Character with Humanity
Another way to get your readers to identify with your characters is by giving your characters humanity (yes, even the villains unless you’re writing campy villains like in the James Bond books.) While the flaw makes the characters real to the reader, the humanity makes them care. The humanity engages the reader emotionally with the character.
In his brilliant book The Comic Toolbox (it’s for everyone, not just comedy writers), Jon Vorhaus says, “Humanity is the sum of a character’s positive human qualities that inspire either sympathy or empathy or both.” And when we’ve done that we’ve created the powerful connect of visceral emotions.
A character’s humanity might include traits such as:
Sense of humor
Strength of Will
During the course of you story, whenever you want to increase reader identification with your protagonist, show their humanity in action. This is particularly useful after your character’s flaw has led them in the wrong direction. Get the readers back on their side by flashing that humanity.
4) A Character Who is Vulnerable
I personally had a lot of trouble with this rule. I had a tendency to make my heroines strong. I didn’t want a wimpy heroine, so I avoided making them vulnerable. They were tough and strong and didn’t need anybody. I thought this was a good thing.
Then one day, as I noticed authors who’d started writing the same time I did were whizzing past me on the road to success, I asked a friend where I was going wrong. She told me I needed to make my characters more vulnerable. At first I wasn’t sure what this meant, and I kept pestering my friend to explain. How did I make my characters vulnerable but keep them tough? I decided to give it a whirl on my next book.
In You Only Love Twice I isolated my heroine. She lived alone and worked at home. She was timid, introverted, and her father had been branded a traitor and murdered while in military custody. She had trouble sustaining romantic relationships, she was overweight, and she wore glasses. She had such a difficult time taking risks that she pretended she was the heroine from the comic books she illustrated in order to make it through stressful situations. But, when an assassin showed up on her doorstep, she fought back. I made her vulnerable, but kept her strong by giving her a humanity. That book went on to win seven writing awards (my first published contest wins), proving to me that my friend was right. Giving characters a vulnerability makes them more relatable to readers. It’s one of the reasons there are so many orphans in romance land. It works.
Author James N. Frey describes this in another way. In his book The Key, How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth, he recommends giving your characters a wound.
Frey says, “The hero’s wound is an extremely important aspect of the hero’s makeup. The wound draws reader’s sympathy. The wound makes the hero’s life in some sense pathos, even tragedy.”
He goes on to say that the wound can be “physical, psychological, spiritual, social—anything that causes the hero to suffer. And the deeper the wound, the more painful, the better.”
Which leads us the fifth element of creating the an emotional bond between reader and character.
5)A Character Who Suffers
The vulnerability is rooted in the backstory. It’s about the past suffering that lingers into the present. What we’re talking about at this point is making them suffer NOW. You’ve probably heard the old advice on plotting: Get your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them. In other words, be really, really mean to them.
If your characters fear something, make them face it. Indiana Jones in a pit of snakes.
If they believe something, make them question it. If they love something, take it away. If they value something, devalue it. If they long for something, make it unobtainable. If they are down, kick them.
Because it is through suffering that the nature of a person is revealed. If you want your readers to fully know and understand your characters, you must show who they are through their response to adversity. Through suffering, they are defined.
When you’re stuck in your manuscript and you don’t know what the next plot point is to be, look at your character. Ask yourself, “What is the worst possible thing that could happen to him or her at that point?” Then make it happen. Your characters may hate you for it, but your readers will love you.
If you leave with one thing from this article, let it be this: Create emotional glue between your reader and the characters. Make your readers feel something and they will keep coming back for more.
Bio: Lori Wilde is the New York Times, USA Today and Publishers’ Weekly bestselling author of 85 works of romantic fiction. She’s a three time Romance Writers’ of America RITA finalist and has four times been nominated for Romantic Times Readers’ Choice Award. She has won numerous other awards as well. Her books have been translated into 26 languages, with more than four million copies of her books sold worldwide. Her breakout novel, The First Love Cookie Club, has been optioned for a TV movie.
Lori is a registered nurse with a BSN from Texas Christian University. She holds a certificate in forensics, and is also a certified yoga instructor.
A fifth generation Texan, Lori lives with her husband, Bill, in the Cutting Horse Capital of the World; where they run Epiphany Orchards, a writing/creativity retreat for the care and enrichment of the artistic soul.