I had a great time visiting fourth graders at Baldwinville Elementary School yesterday. We talked about making characters interesting, giving them real emotions and fears, and figuring out what they want most in the world. The students came up with fantastic character ideas, and they also had some really insightful questions, including this toughie:
“How do you get readers to feel what your character feels?”
Let’s face it, that is one of the biggest challenges of writing stories. You want to make your readers empathize with your characters and make them feel like they’re experiencing the journey alongside your protagonist. But how, exactly, do you do that?
I did my best to give the student a coherent answer, but I wanted to talk more about it here since I think it essentially boils down to these four factors.
-Motivation. We need to understand why your character is doing what she’s doing and why she thinks it’s the best course of action. If she, for no apparent reason, wanders into a room where you know a psycho killer is lurking, you’ll be yelling at her instead of empathizing with her.
-Goal. The character’s end goal needs to be clear from start to finish. Every time the character’s goal shifts in the story (and it should evolve as the character learns more about what’s standing in her way) then the reader should know about it.
-Fear. Whatever your character is afraid of, whatever she dreads , we need to know about it. If she imagines what terrible things will happen if she doesn’t achieve her goal, then we’ll be even more invested in her succeeding.
-Impact. We need to witness how events affect your character emotionally. We don’t need to see her wallowing in grief (and it’s probably better if we don’t) but we do need to see at least a hint that she’s been somehow changed by whatever has happened.
There are more aspects to this technique, of course, but I think these four are the bigger ones.
Now, how do you convey all of this without putting in pages of internal monologue? Ah yes, another tricky business!
Remember that your reader is willing to put in a lot of work when s/he’s reading a story. A hint or a line will give your reader just enough to be able to fill in the gaps, as will showing some of these things through the character’s actions. You don’t have to give your readers a lot for them to empathize with the character, but you do need to give them enough to feel like they’re right there with her.