Sunday, April 18, 2010

Are You Feeling It Too?

The single most valuable new thing I learned at SiWC 2009 was that the way to make your readers care about your story is to ensure your characters care.

Human beings feel empathy; we care about what others are going through. Thus, to hook your reader by their heart, your characters need to care deeply about the events of the story. Their emotional investment invites a similar investment from the reader.

Here's an example:
Liz is an untreated haemophiliac who is trapped in a cabin due to a blizzard. She gets a paper-cut. She decides not to panic. She binds the wound tightly, then remains still and calm while she waits out the blizzard.
Liz is an untreated haemophiliac who is trapped in a cabin due to a blizzard. She gets a paper-cut. As she watches the blood ooze out, horror makes her scalp prickle. She begins to shake, and then to cry with fear. Her mind scurries, trying to think of a way for her to get to civilization now, so this can be dealt with.
A story starting with the second scenario would be more likely to hang onto its readers, not because Liz has become a more likable protagonist (she hasn't) but because she cares deeply about what has happened. Her panic, if not her plight, is something the reader can empathize with.

I have a tendency to not sink my reader into my characters' heads deeply enough, and so I worry about whether I'm effectively showing how much my characters care about what's happening to them. I don't know if this tendency is due to me being hard-wired for visual stimuli (the way I think about scenes is very cinematic) or that I'm taking the "show, don't tell" principle too far. Rather than exploring what a character is feeling, I often try to show it with their physical reactions. You can see that in my example above.

That's not necessarily wrong or right. On one hand leg o' the chicken, the strength of books is that you can dive right into a character and know exactly what's going on in their head and heart. That doesn't happen quite so directly in any other art form.

On the other hand feathery shank, however, saying what someone is thinking or feeling is 'telling', and thus boring. If you're going to do it, you need to do it well.

Orson Scott Card does it superbly in his book The Crystal City. He made me positively loathe the villain simply by dumping me into the villain's head for a while and letting me see how the guy thought. Guy Gavriel Kay did it just as effectively in Sailing to Sarantium with a brilliant chariot race scene. At the beginning of the scene, you've never met these people before. By the end, you're on the edge of your seat because you know how deeply each of the characters cares about the race--only one of them is really in danger of losing his dreams, but all of them are in an emotional frenzy, and you can't help but be swept up in it.

So to get your reader to care about the story, make certain the characters care about it--and deeply--and that they are seen to care.

The tricky question is how to accomplish this.

In both Mr. Card and Mr. Kay's aforementioned books, the technique was to get deep into the characters' points-of-view. The audience was reading the character's thoughts exactly as they occurred to the character himself. There was no extra layer of analysis on the part of the author; the reader was getting an undiluted chance to mind-read these fictional people.

In contrast, my technique of describing how a character physically reacts keeps the reader completely out of that character's head--and yet, I can still communicate what the character is feeling and how much they care about the situation. It's not wrong, but it's also not necessarily the best way to do this. I should probably treat it as one tool in the toolbox, and work on acquiring other tools also.

My personal belief regarding putting the reader inside the character's head is that the deeper into the point-of-view you go, the more you are "showing". This is a strength, in my opinion. The text should read like a transcript of the character's thoughts, and the writer's art goes into making sure those thoughts communicate the character's emotions too.

The more the text reads like a description of what the character is thinking--i.e. the shallower into the point-of-view the writer takes the reader--the more the writer is "telling". I find this ineffective, but when your chosen point-of-view isn't first-person, it's often necessary.


How do you show how much your characters care about what's happening to them? Do you describe their physical reactions? Do you insert the reader into the character's head? Do you use a combination of the two? Do you use other techniques entirely?

What technique do you think is most effective, and why? Do you find one of the techniques harder than the others? Do you find you tend to gravitate toward one or the other naturally?

Finally, what do you think are the pitfalls of each technique? Where and how do you think writers fail when they employ them? What can they do to improve their effectiveness at hooking the reader's emotional interest?

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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