Character, a Writerly Discussion:
Lots of books deal with how to create characters, enhance a story with great characterisation, and other techniques – but ask this first: Why will a reader connect to this person? What’s special about them? Is it clear something needs to change? What is the journey they need to undertake to learn through doing?
The big question: Why Do We Care About This Person?
Finding the emotional link that joins the reader to the character is the first step to getting the reader to keep reading. They invest in the outcome of the character. They want to live this life for a while so they can learn the same lesson, but with no risks.
Oh, you didn’t know that’s why readers need to connect to the story?
It is. The deep dive into the character, the emotional journey, is not one taken by the character. The writer suffers the journey as they write, and so does the reader as they read.
The most important element to any story is how to get the reader – the right reader – to attach to this character for the long hours it will live with them. It’s done through a close connection. How to create that close connection?
It’s not about a picture of the person, it’s not what they look like, sound like, what they do or why. It’s not the psychological profile, the long description, what they do and don’t like. It’s not about wimps or passive writing, nor is it the down and dark character with nothing left to lose. These things create no connection.
What does? It may not be the expected.
The character a reader will love is based on the emotional connection they feel as they read that first page. If the writer hooks into that connection at that point, it’s much less likely the reader will do the DNF.
The answer lies in why we read.
There are lots of answers, but it all boils down to a simple need. We need to learn something, feel something, be something different – but we need to do it knowing it’s safe, that we can come back, or back out when it gets tough, or cry because even though it’s close to our heart and we’re deeply empathising, it’s not physically us suffering. It’s vicarious.
The distance and the connection are one and the same.
How do we learn things as we go through life? We experience them. We do stuff, feel stuff, do stuff differently because we’ve learned from it.
And we do that through those psychological highs and lows and lessons gained through the structure of the story – where the character takes on the journey in such a way that we experience the adrenaline, the fear, the joy, the sharp sting of being cut to the soul. Without any of the risks or dangers. We live vicariously, not actually, in the character. Close, but without the risk.
To do this takes a shape we recognise. We can’t go in at full pace and expect the reader to connect while the character is in the throes of a disaster. First, we connect. But we connect with a sense of change coming. A sense of instability. A need is so close the reader can smell it.
Where to put that sniff of discord?
In the first line if possible, the first paragraph is good, but the first page is an absolute necessity.
That doesn’t mean backstory. Tell the story from where the sense of change is underlying everything the character does and says. Make the reader feel that tension, that spark. It’s a tiny tip of iceberg bobbing on the big ocean.
To do that well means understanding structure, which is the ‘what happens where and why’ and is crucial to the emotional heart-blaster of attachment to a character on a journey (which is what story is – a character in conflict who struggles against adversity towards a resolution).
I was trying to do a 300-word piece on character, but short is a nemesis. Sorry.
2 thoughts on “Who Is This Person?”
Well…this is a very interesting post. I had not thought about this before. I know that if
a character irritates me I have trouble connecting with the book. And the thing I hate most is when, at the end of the book, the writer throws in the towel, and dumps something previously unknown about this character that unravels all of my preconceived notions of said character. As for the first sentence hook I think that Anthony Burgess in Earthly Powers had the all time winner for me. I have copied it from Wikipedia. “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” I read the book 40 years ago and have never forgotten that first sentence!
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That one is amazing, gives you a start, and makes you keep going – or scares you off immediately. It’s a great example, a love or hate proposition from the first few words.
A story isn’t about somebody, it’s somebody’s story.
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