Making A Connection
Most people think of reading as a purely intellectual pursuit, but the best books are the ones that inspire emotion in the reader. While you can appreciate a novel on an intellectual basis, the ones you remember are the ones that made you feel something; a tragedy that evokes a sense of sadness and loss, a feeling of triumph in victory, or a sense of rage at how things turned out. The writing takes on a whole new level of meaning when you begin to care about the characters, when the reader invests in their story. The drama has more impact when it stirs the reader’s emotions, the danger feels more perilous when we want the character to be okay, and there’s a greater sense of satisfaction when the villain is brought down.
It can be very difficult to inspire specific emotions in the reader but the payoff is excellent in terms of the narrative. Whether it’s a solid emotional link to your main protagonist or just a swell of anger against a pompous secondary character that gets in their way, it means the reader is engaging with the story on a visceral level. Provoking any kind of strong emotion is a success of the writing, whether it’s a positive or negative one. If a writer can create a character that you really hate and want to see get their comeuppance, then they’ve already managed to draw you into the story.
Writers have a whole bag of tricks for pushing the reader’s emotional buttons, with different techniques for eliciting different emotions. These methods vary as much as the characters, based on aspects like the morality of the individual, the author’s purpose for the character, and whether they want the reader to instantly side with the character or create a more complex, developing relationship. The redemption/damnation storylines commonly use this method and are most successful when the reader is emotionally involved with the character, changing their feelings, or struggling with pivotal events in the book.
With most novels revolving around a conflict the reader is often encouraged to take sides, sometimes following morality, or in today’s grimdark literature, sometimes just the more interesting psychopath. In fact the whole concept of taking sides can be exploited by the author for dramatic effect, with there being no clear “good side” and forcing the reader to choose.
An example might be the factions and characters in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, we might see a clear good side as the Starks to begin with, and the Lannisters as the bad guys, yet it’s more complicated than that. Underdog characters like Tyrion make us root for him to succeed against the odds, our hero Robb breaks a marriage pact and screws up everything for personal pleasure, and what about Daenerys, don’t we root for her to expand her rule and liberate cities, even though her early plans involve invading the Seven Kingdoms to reclaim her throne? Having feelings for each of these characters and being torn between supporting them in conflict creates a sense of anguish in the reader and is one of the most powerful emotions that can be evoked with fiction.
When it comes to inspiring emotions, the easiest technique to master is the use of sympathy. As long as your character isn’t a total jerk, it’s relatively easy to make them sympathetic. This can be done in a number of ways but the simplest is to just pile on the pain and misfortune, all humans are capable of empathy and it’s hard to read about someone’s continuous suffering without feeling bad for them. Even when it comes to the villainous characters, with enough loss they can be understood and humanised, making the reader feel sorry for them even as they commit terrible acts. To use another Song of Ice and Fire example, not only do we really feel sorry for scrappy little Arya as she endures numerous hardships, but (spoiler) don’t we also start to feel a bit sad for Jaime after he loses his hand and learn a bit about his back-story?
Perhaps an even more simple way to curry emotional favour is to have your characters play a part. Morality plays a key factor in how we feel about people, if a character acts nobly and is obviously on the right side then the reader will like them more, simply because years of cultural and literary bias nudge them that way. They feel they are supposed to like that character and so part of the author’s work is already done for them. Some authors choose to subvert this like in The Sundering series, where Carey makes a point of showing her villains cast to play a specific role. This method will take some careful work however, people seldom identify with the villains and their actions. The reader will likely be aware of the stylistic choice, because usually, that moustache twirling guy in the top hat, you’re supposed to hate him.
“You need me. Urlat needs me: Urlat, uru-Alat that was, that will be again. I did not choose this role. I do what I must.” (Carey, 2005, p261).
Speaking of style, it’s not just about playing the part, the characters have to look it as well. A person will naturally be more inclined to like people who are like them, and/or who exhibit traits that they wish they had. That witty, charming character with the awesome sword skills seems like a cool guy, I think I’ll root for him, oh I’m less enthusiastic about the hunchback mole-person lurking in the corner and his collection of artistically-shaped mushrooms. As above some authors delight in turning this on its head, think how much fun you’d have using these techniques to make people feel for the creepy mole-guy? Now the same trick can be applied in reverse, we also support people who hate the things we do, a quick way to make the reader root for a hero is to make a minor bad guy who acts so cruel that the reader can’t help but hate him, then have your hero appear and break his nose. It creates instant positive feeling for the hero and a sense of satisfaction that the bad guy got his.
How do you make sure the reader will hate that guy? It starts with attitude, if a character looks down on others, treats them like dirt and kicks puppies on weekends then we’re unlikely to want to make friends. That kind of attitude inspires disgust and hate from the reader until you’re hoping for someone to come along and break their nose. While a kind attitude can inspire good feelings, a bad one draws hate like a magnet, especially in fiction where we often have to inhabit the mind of that character. Seeing a mind like that up close and looking at the deeper feelings of such a character can help to bring understanding if the writer wants to swing it that way, but it’s also a chance to show how vile the character is at heart.
“Adolf Kreyssig could see all he had worked for slipping through his fingers. He would get it back. Whoever he had to denounce, whoever he had to imprison or execute, he would get it all back.” (Werner, 2012, p192).
Motivation is a vital aspect in how we feel about a character, the reader will naturally judge someone for committing crimes, but what if they have no choice, what if it is only to stop a greater threat? It may even make the reader like a character more if they have the drive to go against society to do what’s right – who doesn’t love a vigilante after all. Motivation can affect how we view our villains too, while it may not justify their actions it can stop the reader from seeing them as wholly evil to the point where they may even feel conflicted about the hero stopping them because their motives are good. Take Magneto from the X-Men, his goal is only to protect his species, which is completely understandable, the conflict arises from how he goes about it.
“Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night? The feeling that one day they will pass that foolish law or one just like it, and come for you? And your children?” – Magneto
Nobody’s perfect and everybody hates a smartass, but have a flawed smart-alec and you have a great character that can inspire a range of emotions. Giving a character flaws can make them endearing to the reader, especially if they save the day with a cunning plan, only to blow it because of some stupid character trait. Ryushi from Broken Sky has a habit of blasting his foes with an enormous shot of energy, only to be completely drained by his lack of control and then needs to be rescued. A flawed character is a human one, it keeps them relatable while they have great adventures and lets the reader feel closer to them. It allows the reader to simultaneously feel awe at the character’s actions, while cringing at their mistakes and feeling a flicker of superiority. By inspiring a range of feelings; hope, triumph, folly, awe, embarrassment, these characters pull the reader in by stages, building an in-depth relationship with the reader as they go.
Emotions provide a bottomless well to be tapped by your characters in endless different ways. Some will be drawn out by design while others will arise naturally, invest in a character you’re reading with the techniques mentioned and soon you’ll feel a sense of fear when they’re in danger. It’s not that hard to manage, feelings are what drive us all, and the more you can get the reader to feel for the characters the more they’ll be drawn into the story. It might be words on a page, but they can certainly reach the heart.