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Packing Emotional Punch: Connecting with Readers

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Packing Emotional Punch Connecting with Readers Emotional Writing - Novel Conclusions Literary Blog - Christina Gerstle

Children’s Concert by George Iakovidis via Wikimedia Commons

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The stories that stick out the most in my memory tend to be stories where I related to the characters somehow, really felt for them.  Creating this feeling for your readers is not just about putting your characters through some tough times on their way to triumph (although that’s generally a key ingredient in plot).  We pack emotional punch by helping the reader to connect with what the main characters are going through.  If the reader doesn’t care a lick about what happens to the characters, your story is dead in the water.

How do we pack emotional punch?  How do we connect with readers?

Build tension bit by bit.  The main characters’ reactions to and actions within crisis situations must build up through the story.  In The Shining, wife Wendy at first treats husband Jack with kid gloves when he starts to lose his marbles.  If we didn’t have these build-up scenes of gradually growing tension, it wouldn’t be quite so scary when Jack (inevitably) starts running around the empty hotel with an ax.  Because the tension has been building, piece by piece like a little Jenga game, we’re all the more scared by the time Jack is chasing wife and kid with an ax and a look of glee.

Have a “Save the Cat” moment early in your story.  Blake Snyder’s fantastic screenwriting book Save the Cat describes this more in detail, but the gist of the idea is that your main character(s) must have a moment early on in the story that gives us a reason to care about them.  They must do something that, essentially, reminds us that they are human.  In Hunger Games, Katniss volunteered to take little sister Prim’s place.  In Matilda, little Matilda has a very sweet conversation with the local librarian exposing her innocence and insatiable curiosity.

Include humanizing details.  The Save the Cat moment will go a long way to create this, as well as character tags and general details about your character.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood does a beautiful job of both creating curiosity and building a relatable character by, early on, hinting at how much the narrator is afraid to think about.  We get bare hints of the narrator’s past, and, in addition to building curiosity, it helps make the narrator more human than the robot the book’s society is trying to create.

Give the characters a clear goal (or goals).  In addition to being nearly vital to plot, this gives readers something to root for.  If the main character is working toward a clear goal, this gives the character an opportunity to grow and – you guessed it – be more relatable.  You can up the ante even further by giving a secondary character a goal in direct conflict with the main character’s goal.  Sparks fly and create more opportunities to grow and be eminently relatable.  Fun times.

Don’t be overly dramatic.  Melodrama causes us to laugh at characters rather than laugh with them.  If you want to be like Voltaire or Alexander Pope, have at it.  Otherwise, we should all try to remember to temper the dramatic scenes with action or humor scenes in between; action and humor, done properly, can tell us just as much or more about a character as dramatic bits.

Keep it moving.  Time frame (or the perception of time frame) keeps us involved in the story.  If every event is happening one after the other, it matters more than if there’s lots of lag time between important events.  Exposition creates the perception of lag time, whether time is actually lagging or not.  Relevant action keeps the story moving.  If that action is years apart, sum up the intervening years in a few sentences.  Relevant action keeps us involved in the story.

How else can we pack an emotional punch or help our characters be more relatable?  What’s a great story you’ve read that packed an emotional punch?

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Building Complex Characters

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Cain and Abel by Titian via Wikimedia Commons

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One of the best things about good stories is great characters.  In a memorable story, the main character shares the stage with a cast of other similarly complex characters.  We don’t need to have 20 super complex characters, unless you’re writing some kind of epic, but we should definitely have more than one, and almost definitely more than 2 or 3.  Side note/disclaimer: I don’t like stories about man vs. nature where it’s literally just one dude/dudette against the elements, a la Robinson Crusoe, Castaway, Hatchet, etc.; those stories are great naptime inducers.

How do we create these complex characters?

  1. Each of your main ensemble characters should have their own character arc.  That means they have an objective or three.  This is even better if their objectives clash directly with the main character’s objectives – plot fireworks!  For example, in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Matilda’s little buddy Lavendar wants to be just as cool as the upper grade kids, and this character arc has some serious unintended consequences for Matilda.  When Matilda is falsely accused of being behind one of Lavendar’s pranks (a prank she set up to get in with the cool kids), the ensuing events are set in motion with no turning back.
  2. Be very strategic in your choice of details.  Although it’s very important to include details about our characters (this is something we really must do), a little goes a long way.  In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a telling detail about main character Jonas’s best friend Asher does double duty, not only revealing a bit about Asher, but contrasting it directly with Jonas:  “Jonas was careful about language, not like his friend, Asher, who talked too fast and mixed things up, scrambling words and phrases until they were barely recognizable and very funny.”  Jonas’s attention to detail and thoughtfulness are thrown into sharp relief when held up next to his sloppy, funny best friend.  (For more on detail, check out last week’s post about character tags).
  3. Dynamic situations.  Situations where characters are forced to reevaluate their stances or their past decisions – these are some great character-revealing situations.  Severus Snape, of Harry Potter fame, presents a fantastic example.  When he finds out that the woman he’s loved since childhood – Harry’s mother, Lily – is in danger, he becomes a double agent.  Even though he carries a deep dislike of Harry, carried over from his hatred of Harry’s father, he changes the course of many lives in his time as a double agent, Harry’s especially.
  4. Your plot should not be able to stay the same if you removed one of the characters.  The characters and plot ought to be so intertwined that you cannot remove a character without affecting the plot.  Can you imagine Top Gun without Maverick?  Not so much.  If you can remove a character without affecting the plot, that character probably didn’t belong in the first place.

How else can we create complex characters?  Who are some of your favorite complex characters?

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Character Tags in Fiction and Why They’re Fantastic

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Sean Bean as Ned Stark via Google Images

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In most memorable books you read, the characters hold distinct places in your memory.  Why is this?  Outside of the overarching plot, what makes characters stand out in our minds?  Character tags help with this immensely.  A character tag is a physical way of being that the character comes back to time and again.  Character tags could be:

  • A common phrase or verbal tic
  • A way of speaking
  • An accent or dialect
  • A physical mannerism
  • A way of carrying themselves
  • A scent
  • A recurring behavior
  • Etc.

For example, in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, 6-year-old Charles Wallace speaks incredibly clearly and calmly and in complete sentences, much more so than the average person.  As a result, even when dialogue tags are scarce, we know when Charles Wallace is speaking.  This also works well because of the contrast it provides to the other main characters.  He works as a foil for his impulsive, belligerent sister Meg.  L’Engle weaves these characters masterfully in a way that helps us relate to both of them.

In Rachel Ward’s Numbers, teenage Spider presents a fantastic example.  Spider moves constantly, restless, and this comes up again and again.  Our narrator Jem describes him as

“He’s big, Spider, tall.  One of those people who stand too close to you, doesn’t know when to back off.  Suppose that’s why he gets into fights at school.  He’s in your face all the time, you can smell him.  Even if you twist and turn away, he’s still there – doesn’t read the signs at all, never takes the hint.”

This becomes a character tag rather than just a description because we see Spider doing these things over and over again.  These mannerisms embed themselves into the story.  You also definitely want to walk the thin line of not using the character tags too much, or you can fall into the accidental comedy category.

Character tags become especially important in ensemble series like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones.  In the Harry Potter series, even though Ernie MacMillan only pops up a couple times in each book, we know who he is because of the proud way he carries himself.  It’s his primary character tag.  In the Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones), keeping the crazy amount of characters straight is only possible because George RR Martin can throw down character tags like no one’s business.  Ned Stark (not to mention many of the other Northerners in the series) is always saying “Winter is coming” like a mantra.  If someone utters that phrase, we know we’re talking to Stark or one of his people.

What do these character tags do?

  • They make characters more memorable and distinguishable (making the story more interesting).
  • They tell us something about the character.
  • They make the character more real for the reader.
  • They help create tension between characters.

What are good character tags you’ve run across?  What do you think character tags do for a story?

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Who’s Driving Your Story?

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Divergent via veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com

Is your main character (MC) driving the action in your story?  What makes this particular story belong to this particular character?  Is this character just a victim on the sidelines, or is this character taking action to drive the plot forward?  Writing your character as proactive instead of reactive drives the plot and gives us reason to root for the character.  It’s okay if your MC is failing (in fact, road blocks are great building blocks to plot) as long as she is trying to do something to get where she wants to go.

In the “Q&A with Veronica Roth” section at the end of Divergent, author Veronica Roth tells us that she gave herself one primary rule with regard to her main character, “Beatrice is the agent… she’s always choosing, always acting, always moving the plot by her behavior.”  Active, rather than passive, characters help your plot to be both more character-driven and more action-driven.  In Divergent, Beatrice, or Tris, drives the action at the beginning of the story by choosing her faction.  There must be a reason that this exact character is telling this story.  What is so special about your MC that they deserve to be the one telling this story?  What is it about them and their experience that makes them the person to follow?

In The Hunger Games, Katniss drives the action at the beginning of the novel by volunteering to replace her little sister at the reaping.  Katniss made a hard choice, but it was her choice.  If she had originally been chosen for the reaping instead of her little sister, The Hunger Games would not have had the same emotional pull (and we as readers might not be rooting for Katniss in the same way).  Although Katniss is caught up in the Games and definitely sometimes in a reactive position, she still continues to take action to drive the plot.

Why have an active rather than passive MC?

  • Readers want to root for the main character more if they are trying to help themselves.
  • We get to know the character better through their actions (showing vs. telling).
  • Hard choices reveal the character’s innermost traits (Beatrice’s desire for independence, Katniss’s love for her sister).
  • This story belongs to these characters – there’s no way it could be told in the same way by anyone else.  The characters become more memorable.

What are your favorite stories where the character drives the action?  Do you think this is something that is important to move the plot forward?

P.S. Check out this old post from Nathan Bransford about character choice.

What’s So Great About Unreliable Narrators?

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The Sixth Sense via Wikipedia

Every narrator has a perspective.  Even with novels written in third person omniscient point of view (where you as the reader know everything that’s going on, even things the main characters don’t know), there is a perspective there; the author has chosen which story to tell.  In first person and limited third person, we get to know the main character through his or her perspective – the way they views things, people, and events, the way they act.  Having a unique perspective gives the main character life.  Sometimes, this unique perspective extends so far that the main character is an unreliable narrator – they aren’t seeing what’s really happening (or, in some cases, they are omitting key information).

Why would you write a story with an unreliable narrator?  Well, let’s examine this a bit.  M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense gives us a clear example of an unreliable narrator.  (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) In this movie, we follow troubled child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis’s character) as he helps a young patient, Cole, who claims he can see dead people.  Crowe is especially determined to help Cole because he failed to help a patient with similar delusions in the past.

As we get wrapped up in the story, we as an audience are completely taken by surprise – at least, I was – to find out that Crowe has been dead for the large majority of the movie and that Cole is the only one who can see him.  Crowe was an unreliable narrator because he was showing us not just a one-sided version of events but an intensely one-sided version of events.  The ending takes us by surprise because the main narrator was only showing us a very, very limited view of events.

What’s so great about unreliable narrators?

  • They allow for twists in the story that make sense (rather than twists that just feel like contrived plot devices).  When well-written, it creates that wow factor that can be so hard to come by.
  • We as writers get to fill the story with “Easter eggs.”  Think of all the incredibly cool things you can find re-watching The Sixth Sense.
  • It’s fun to get into the mind of a truly idiosyncratic character.
  • We as writers are solidly in control of the framing of the story, even more so than with a regular Joe type narrator.

A key point here is that the writing needs to be solid in order for this to work.  If the writing is tacky or shoddy, an unreliable narrator might just make the reader want to put the book down.  Of course, the writing needs to be solid for any story to work properly, but you already knew that, didn’t you?

Have you read or seen anything you enjoyed with an unreliable narrator?  What did you like about it?

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Random Plot Generators or Another Way to Stave Off Writer’s Block

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Every Which Way But Loose via Google Images

Today, let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness and hilarity of random plot generators.  Picture this:  You stare at the blank page, and the blank page stares right back atcha.  After some time of this, you finally give in to work with some writing prompts.  However, you won’t work with just any writing prompts, you will use the fantastic random plot generators that pop up frequently in out of the way spots on the interwebs.

Random plot generators often get a bad rap for throwing out crazy, unrealistic plot ideas, but they can definitely help stave off writer’s block.  Although I can’t find the original source (sorry, y’all, Google let me down on this one) for matching this movie to this plot generator, Wikipedia tells us about an example from a retired version of The Official Movie Plot Generator, which has three vertical boxes, the first of which identifies a specific type of protagonist:

“A trucker who doesn’t play by the rules.” The middle box specifies a specific action on the part of the protagonist– “bareknuckle fights for money.” The bottom box specifies a specific type of antagonist, “accompanied by a mischievous orangutan.” By piecing these three elements together, the user obtains the odd sentence, “A trucker who doesn’t play by the rules bareknuckle fights for money, accompanied by a mischievous orangutan.” This plot sounds absurd, and it is — but it is also the plot of a movie starring Clint Eastwood — Every Which Way but Loose.

There are not only some really fun random plot generators out there in every genre you can imagine (such as this plot scenario generator, this genre plot generator, and this more creatively designed science fiction plot generator); character quirk generators exist, too.  Check out a fun example of character quirks from the character generator at Archetype Writing:

Your character is female.
One of your character’s cardinal traits is charisma.
The character’s greatest weakness is a fear of snakes.
The character’s most prized possession is a coin from the Roman Empire.

What do you all think of random plot generators?  Are they an amusing waste of time?  Or can they prompt actual, helpful ideas?

Libba Bray’s Gorgeous Characterization

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Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty

How is it that Libba Bray makes her characters so achingly real?  I’ve talked a bit about character motives and character quirks in the past, and there are always more avenues to explore in characterization.

I’ve recently been reading Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy, which begins with A Great and Terrible Beauty.  The cover, a young girl in a corset, threw me off when I first saw it, as it looks like some silly romance; however, I had heard some great things about Libba Bray and was intrigued by the book blurb.  Generally, I can read the first couple paragraphs of a book and decide if I want to buy it; A Great and Terrible Beauty passed this test and pulled me right into the mystery.

The character Felicity gives us a wonderful example of Bray’s ability to create realistic, dynamic characters.  Felicity, first introduced as a bit of an antagonist, grows into one of the most complex characters in the trilogy.  This is hinted at when she jumps dramatically onto the page:

Her white-blond hair is arranged neatly in a bun, as young ladies must wear their hair, but even so, it seems a bit wild, as if the pins won’t really hold it.  Arched eyebrows frame small, gray eyes in a face so pale it’s almost the color of an opal.  She’s amused at something, and she tosses her head back and laughs heartily, without trying to stifle it.  Even though the dark-haired girl is perfect and lovely, it’s the blond who gets the attention of everyone in the room.  She’s clearly the leader.

What did Bray do here that characterizes Felicity?

  • Shows the character in action
  • Points out telling details of her appearance
  • Shows the way others react to her

In just a paragraph, and without stopping the scene to describe the character, Bray creates a dynamic, fluid picture in our minds.  One of the most important things here is showing the way others react to a character, something often overlooked.

What other strong characters stand out to you?  What makes those characters stand out?

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