The basic purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotional reaction from your readers. My guest today, Nate Philbrick, reveals three major ways to do just that. All yours, Nate.
The basic purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotional reaction from your readers. Part of this takes place through the emotional ups and downs of your plot, and part of it depends on how well readers connect with your characters.
The emotions you want to draw out from the reader are many: laughter, excitement, indignation, anger, sadness, anxiety… Your novel should be an emotional roller coaster.
As a writer, it’s your job to hone your skills so that you can give readers the satisfaction of a story that evokes their emotions. Here are three major ways you can accomplish that task.
Draw out readers’ emotions through the characters
This is one of the most powerful ways to connect with your reader—through your characters. Readers want to have a person-to-person relationship with your characters starting on page one.
Readers connect and identify with specific types of characters
1. Characters who grow and change.
It’s hard to connect with a character who goes through no personal growth, change in ambition, change in priority, or other such character arcs.
2. Characters whose personalities stands out.
All characters (major and minor) should have at least one element that sets them apart from the rest. That’s what makes them loveable. If all your characters act, talk and behave the same, it will be much harder for readers to identify with any single one. A good example of this principle would be Harry, Ron, and Hermione from the Harry Potter franchise (J.K. Rowling).
3. Characters who suffer intensely as a result of the plot conflict.
Your readers didn’t pick up your novel to watch Happy Hank play marbles. They want to be able to sympathize with a character whose story-line is hard. The more suffering a character goes through, the more readers will want to reach out and suffer with them.
4. Characters that readers can identify with on a human level.
Nobody is pure good, and nobody is pure evil. Make all your characters’ goals, motivations, ambitions, convictions, affiliations, and dreams as humanly real as possible.
Create characters that readers are willing to invest in emotionally
1. Draw inspiration for characters from people who are close to you.
The more you are emotionally attached to your characters, the more your readers will be.
2. Develop the character beyond the context of the story.
Their personal arch must transcend the pages of the book, and even if readers only see that which is shown within the story, the time you invest in developing the characters outside plays an important role in how tangible your characters are.
3. Remember that good characters will make mistakes, and bad characters will do good things.
As previously mentioned, avoid pure-good and pure-evil characters at all costs. No matter how vile your villain is, give him one thing that he genuinely loves (i.e. a son/daughter, a pet, etc.) and your readers will be able to find some sympathy for him.
Draw out emotions by being clever with your plot
Your novel’s plot also plays a huge role in connecting emotionally with your readers. The more your plot plays with human emotions—all of them—the more your readers will feel it and breathe it all in. It’s a simple concept, yet there are specific techniques you can apply.
Understand your readers and realize what kind of plot elements will universally provoke an emotional reaction
1. There are negative situations that all people are impacted by.
Suffering of the innocent, suffering of children, severing of loving relationships, betrayals, death of loved ones, unfair punishment, helplessness, etc.
2. There are positive situations that all people are impacted by.
Falling in love, the joys of family, pleasant surprises, fortunate turning of events, overcoming obstacles, achieving objectives, reuniting with lost loved ones, physical pleasures, etc.
Manage the timeline of the plot to your advantage
1. Let the readers spend time with the characters in the plot before expecting any emotional connection.
Sure, you can kill off Fergus on page three, but don’t expect any reaction from the readers, no matter how much you dramatize. The more hardships readers go through alongside a character, the more they will rejoice in triumph or mourn in failure.
2. Surprise readers.
Unexpected emotions are stronger than foreseen emotions. For example, consider Severus Snape’s role in the Harry Potter books/films. The fact that we spend most of the series wondering if he’s actually good or bad makes his final revelation incredibly impacting.
Know how to intensify emotional situations
1. Strike each character where it will hurt them the most.
To do this, you need to understand your character on a deeper level than you probably do now.
2. Don’t be afraid to be ruthless.
It’s not easy, but sometimes you have to be cruel to your characters in order to get your point across—whether it leads towards ultimate victory in the end or not.
3. Victory and happiness are meaningless if they come without a steep price.
Effortless results don’t deserve to be celebrated. Nothing stabs at readers more than bittersweet. Victory dampened by loss. Defeat lightened with gain. This is the essence of real life that you can reflect in your fiction.
Draw out emotions by pouring of yourself into the story
Readers won’t experience an emotion that you didn’t experience while writing. It’s that simple, but it’s essential that you comprehend the principle and apply it to your writing. I have multiple published short stories, as well as contest winners, but to this day, my best one is the story I wrote at six in the morning with tears streaming down my face. I felt, cried, and bled along with my characters.
Don’t be afraid to channel your personal fears into your story
1. What are you most afraid to lose?
Your character has these fears, too.
2. What individuals can you not live without?
Your character has people in his life that he can’t fathom losing, just like you.
3. What is your biggest potential failure right now?
Your character will spend most of the story looking failure in the eye. Only time will tell if he succeeds or not.
Use specific instances where you experienced intense emotion to fuel scenes in your story (sadness, triumph, embarrassment, etc.).
You don’t have to insert these situations into your novel just as they are. The idea is to bring back all the emotion you felt while going through whatever situation you choose from your past, and then to be able to write your scene as the emotions are fresh on your mind. This method takes practice, but it’s worth it.
Found this post interesting? Then you’ll love The Brain on Storytelling: Building Emotional Connections.