by, Alex Yuschik
Hey again! I’m back, this time talking about characters and emotions! There may also be knights and dragons and Harry Potter (duh), so prepare for fantasy metaphors.
So one of the problems I have reading submissions is that I can’t connect with a protagonist. Emotions are tricky things. Too much too soon and it feels awkward, like we’ve just walked in on a couple getting it on in a broom closet or someone having a massive breakdown. Too little and there’s no motive for us to keep reading. After all, if you don’t care about a person, then why are you interested in whether or not they defeat their villains and achieve happiness?
How do you walk this line as a writer? One way (because we are creative types and thus there are always infinite ways to do anything) is to take it in steps.
Read about how you met your favorite characters. Remember when we first met Harry Potter? (Well, okay, so obviously the first chapter is him as a baby with Hagrid and the motorbike and all, but look beyond that, when we meet him as his own person). He’s being woken up way too early by his aunt so that he can cook bacon for his spoiled cousin’s birthday. Who among us has not had to wake up early for something that we did not want to do? But Harry is also a total champ and cooks the bacon while presenting us with a view of his hilariously terrible family. We’ve all felt that the people we’re related to are really just crazypants sometimes, and it’s not hard to love a bacon-making underdog who makes funny quips.
Think about making your reader care about a character like putting on a suit of armor. Each plate or layer of mail is an event or detail that shows something more about this character to the reader. The more armor that the reader has on, the more emotions can come at them. If you want a character’s death to pull every emotional string a reader has, then you need to have your readers in full armor to face that emotion-dragon. Scale your readers’ emotional connections to characters appropriately, just like you do with adding in backstory–as needed.
This is why so often you hear advice about not starting with a character fighting for their life (unless they fight for their life regularly or something)– we don’t have any armor on when we pick up a book. We don’t care about this character because we don’t know anything about them yet. But, if you maybe show me a girl coming back from work, making herself and her cat pancakes for dinner because she’s poor, and then getting into deadly knife fights on her apartment’s roof because she’s also the most feared assassin in the city, then I’m more inclined to cheer for her and want to keep reading.
It’s the same reason why it’s so hard to pull a character death off in the first chapter of a book and why starting on a funeral is also difficult. Where is our emotional connection to the character? Granted, again, because we are writers and therefore fearless, we do scoff at the rules and break them sometimes. Look at the books you’ve read and loved that pull this off: I’ll bet that if a character dies in the first twenty pages, then the author probably showed you a whole lot of events and details so that you got into the full suit of armor pretty quick (you can do same experiment with TV shows– aren’t the characters you grow to love really fast almost always doomed or constantly endangered?).
It’s important to show us these things to forge a connection. I’m saying showing and not telling deliberately, too, but that’s a topic for another day. Showing provides the stronger connection.
It’s hard to pull off an emotional cataclysm in the first chapter of your manuscript, which is why you hear a lot about not doing it. If your manuscript absolutely 100% NEEDS a funeral or a death or some other upheaval, make sure that you’re comfortable getting a reader connected with a character. Kate tweeted something ages ago that I love and am pasting here because why not:
Writing is an art and a science. Don’t use “writing has no rules” as a crutch. If you love it, learn it. #subtips
— Kate Brauning (@KateBrauning) June 24, 2013
You want an epic death scene right away? Learn how to write it so that your readers flip out. Test yourself to make sure that you’re doing alright with getting your readers emotionally connected to your characters (that is, use beta readers and critique partners and a lot of first chapters). Become a master ninja of emotion– make readers shocked when they realize how much they care because you’ve clad them in character-armor so insidiously. You need to get readers to care, period. How you do so is up to you, but be aware of what you can pull off and work to build your skills.
And really, who doesn’t want to say to their readers: suit up, guys. It’s emotion-slaying time.
@alexyuschik prefers hanging with dragons to slaying them and interns with Entangled Publishing.