Posted February 2020
“We read to know we are not alone.” C. S. Lewis said that, and it is at the heart of every good story. When you write, you open a window to a shared experience between you and the reader. It is the prevailing principle that guides every story I write: Make them a part of it. Make them care. Make them wonder. Make them feel… happy… angry… worried… sad. Make them ask questions of me… of the characters… of themselves.
Reading has a direct correlation to an increase in empathy. It is a medium that allows us to walk in another person’s shoes and experience what they are experiencing. It gives us unfettered access to their heads and their hearts, thereby allowing us to experience their innermost thoughts and feelings. It is extraordinarily powerful, and the reason that, for me, no other experience matches the emotional impact of escaping into a really good book.
It has taken me a long time to understand what it takes to make a reader care. A lot is intuitive, but some of it is learned. I hope this article helps unravel some of the mystery.
First, stories are about characters. So that is where you begin.
Stories are about the human experience. The key word being “human.” Without characters, there is no story, so who you choose as your actors form the essence of the work. There is no more important task than understanding your characters and conveying them convincingly on the page. While I always start with a “big idea”—
“How much should you trust someone to look after your children?” for In an Instant,
“Is there good and evil in each of us?” for Hush Little Baby,
“What does celebrity do to a family?” for No Ordinary Life
—I can’t begin to write until I have a sense of who I am writing about. When I started the book that is coming out next January, I happened to be reading the biography of a beloved man from my hometown, and the description of the man from when he was a child became the inspiration for the first character of the story.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that characters need to be sympathetic. They don’t need to be perfect…or even necessarily likeable (though it helps), but it is essential that we understand them. We can see past flaws when we know why a character is the way they are or understand what drives them. So let the reader in. Give them insight into what makes your characters tick, and always give them at least one quality we can relate to.
There are certain universal traits everyone responds to. First, there are the obvious ones: a character is compassionate and cares about others; they have a strong belief in something or demonstrate moral integrity; they are heroic and willing to take a risk or make a sacrifice for others; they are fun or funny. These are easy, no-brainers, and almost guarantee a sympathetic response. But they are also expected, and if you overuse them, your characters will become cardboard caricatures that are flat and uninteresting. Perfect people are actually pretty boring. It’s better if your characters are flawed or damaged. Make your characters human and allow them to make mistakes. The more we can relate to them, the more we will care.
Less obvious endearing qualities are the ones we intuitively feel sympathy for: a character who is gullible and falls for a ploy; or one who is blinded by passion or driven toward a goal; or the opposite, an everyday man doing the best he can.
As for writing an unlikable character, it is vital to put as much care and consideration into their development as you do the heroes. Leo Tolstoy said, “The best stories don’t come from ‘good versus bad’ but from ‘good versus good.’” Let the reader know why the antagonist is the way they are or why they are doing what they are doing. Perhaps they were abandoned as a child or suffered a great betrayal. Maybe they’ve never known love. Perhaps their motives are good despite the wickedness of their actions. Or maybe they’re trapped and have no other choice. A well-drawn villain has understandable motives—good reasons for doing what they are doing, even if it is only justifiable in their own minds.
Once you know who your characters are, you need to bring them to life.
It’s all in the details. Cliché characters have no place in great storytelling. Each actor should be as individual as you are. The better you paint a picture of your characters, the more real they will become. Give us the physical as well as the quirks and personality traits that make them unique. Then go further and give us insight into what makes a character tick, their history and the factors that made them who they are.
Next, get inside their head and let the reader know what they are thinking. Use all the senses, explain what they are seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling. Write their inner thoughts—their ideas, observations, opinions, perceptions, and thoughts. This is the heart of the story, the insight into and understanding of the inner struggle. Inhabiting your character and letting the reader view the world through their eyes reemphasizes the character’s motives and sheds light on how the characters are being affected by what is happening.
Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and neither does a story. Place and time affect your characters. The social and political climate in which they exist influences and shapes them as well as each particular setting. You need to consider whether a character’s been someplace before or whether they are experiencing it for the first time, whether they have memories associated with the place and how the setting makes them feel. It’s this sort of careful consideration that makes stories come alive. Put yourself in your characters’ shoes, imagine the world around them, and channel what they are experiencing onto the page.
Stories are about something happening to your characters.
Your character either needs something, wants something, or something is going to happen to them that will cause them to react. That is the story. It’s the reason the reader opens the book and the reason they turn the page. As a novelist, your job is to tell a story that is entertaining and intriguing, one that engages the reader enough for them to want to read on.
Tension is the key. Good stories are all about tension—conflict, struggle, and transformation. The main reason stories fall apart is things stop happening, there is a lull in the action and the reader loses interest and starts to skim, or worse, stops reading all together. So, ratchet it up and create constant uncertainty about what’s going to happen next.
You need to make your characters suffer. I always struggle with this. I like my characters (I’ve worked hard to make them sympathetic), and I don’t want to see them hurt. But there’s no choice. It needs to be done. I often end up sobbing when I am writing, a lot like Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give. Causing your characters pain should hurt; that’s how you know you’re doing it right.
So, imagine the worst thing that can happen, then add twists and complications to make it worse. Disaster, bad luck, rotten people doing rotten things—heap it on—misery, danger, heartache, hurt. If your character fell down a mineshaft, have him break his arm as he is trying to climb out. Is he counting on his dog to go for help? Have his dog return alone, howling because he’s been hurt. Did your character just lose her mother? Have her best friend move away. Is your character shy? Force them to speak out in a crowd. Don’t let up. This is what makes the reader read on. It’s what tugs at the heartstrings and compels them to find out what happens next. So break out the tissues and sharpen your pen. It’s time to do some damage and convince the reader: IT IS NOT GOING TO WORK OUT.
Let the reader draw their own conclusions.
Set the stage, write what happens, and accept that it is open for interpretation. If a writer calls a woman a thief, she is a thief, but if an author shows a mother stealing a can of formula to feed her baby, the reader can decide for themselves whether they think she is a thief or not.
Tell the story, but don’t tell the reader what to think. Whenever one of my books is released, I find it interesting to discover how readers perceived it. Their varying viewpoints are fascinating. They often interpret characters or passages entirely differently than I intended. When I’m writing, I try to think of it like a movie. If it’s not part of the setting, or it’s not a thought in the actor’s head, or the actor can’t convey it through body language or dialog, it doesn’t belong in the book. The only exception is backstory, which I personally stay away from because I think it’s a momentum killer.
That being said, it is vital to engage the reader’s heart by vividly describing the characters and what they are going through. Paint as intense a picture as possible using well-chosen details that put the reader in the story. If a character is sad because her mother died, describe the handkerchief she keeps in her pocket that was her mom’s. If a character is an aspiring dancer, show her at a make-or-break audition. If a character is uppity, have her be condescending to a friend or pretentious. As Mark Twain said, “Don’t just say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
It’s nice if there’s a point.
Not every story has to have an underlying theme or deep soul-stirring moral, but often, great stories do. They make us think, and the characters stay with us after the last page is turned. So, search for a deeper meaning. Is there a lesson to be learned or perhaps a question to be contemplated? Again, stories are about the human condition and reading can be an exploration into our universe and our existence. Just as we read to know we are not alone, it is also why we write—to tap into the collective consciousness that makes us uniquely human and share a journey that stirs our souls.
I will leave you with one final thought. In the words of the great Enid Bagnold: “Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it is the answer to everything… It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”