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With Feeling

On a completely unrelated note: Moving is the worst. And I’m bleeding money left and right on all sorts of home-related purchases. On a better note: I am sitting in front of my new fireplace, so things could be worse! I look forward to getting to know my new home of Minneapolis. Now (ahem) moving on…

I was reading a manuscript recently for a freelancing client and noticed a lot of pretty shocking things going on…without the usual reactions that should accompany shocking things. An example would be a character developing a really painful physical condition and then shrugging it off. And his friends noticing that something is off and saying, “Well, I guess he’ll tell me what’s up eventually” instead of confronting their ill companion.

Here are two missed opportunities to deepen the reader’s connection with the world of the story. The first happened when the character refused to allow events to impact him. Or maybe he decided to keep up an illusion of normalcy and was therefore nonchalant.These are both realistic choices–there are certainly people like this in the world, lots of them. But are they good choices for fictional people to make?

A character who keeps everyone at arm’s length is only good if they have cracks for the reader to crawl into. The reader isn’t a character, for the sake of talking about fiction. And they’re not really a person. They are a sort of mind-meld creature that can and should get just a bit closer to the bone, especially in parts of a story that are full of fear or anger or hurt. The toughest characters in the world can have their walls, but they should also have their vulnerabilities, especially if the reader gets some access to those (via interiority, for example).

The second missed opportunity in our example scenario is the lack of reaction to whatever is weird. If one character is doing something to disturb the status quo, the characters around him need to take notice instead of taking the path of least resistance. I know there are some worlds, like totalitarian societies in a dystopia, for example, where any kind of out-of-line behavior is frowned upon and maybe it’s a bad idea to react. Even in that case–and maybeespecially in that case–characters should be tough on other characters. That means confronting them, forcing them into the vulnerable places, throwing open closet doors and letting the skeletons out. If something is weird, it needs to be weird for the POV characterand those around them.

This level of reaction helps the reader get context. Classic story theory dictates that a story really begins when a character’s normal gets thrown into a state of abnormal. They spend the rest of the story trying to either get back to normal or establish a new normal. So events that leave the status quo behind should be reacted to with feeling, and lots of it. Both internal and external. By everyone involved.

This is something I’ve discussed a lot on the blog, but it never becomes less important. Writers are notorious for taking shortcuts and making it easier on themselves. That’s why characters shrug off bumps in the night until it’s convenient for the writer’s plot to finally involve the monster. That’s why they ignore a friend’s mounting pallor until–oops!–they’re found in the cemetery at midnight, feeding on a fresh kill. If your protagonist and the other characters in your world have such tight control over themselves and their reactions to events, there are fewer opportunities for your reader to get to know them.

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  1. Greg Pattridge’s avatar

    I think authors are so busy writing the next scene they sometimes forget what their readers don’t know or miss out on reactions they could use. You have a character, have lived with them sometimes for years, and have a much deeper understanding of that character. I’ve found letting a story sit for a few weeks or having a critique by a willing reader can bring those deficiencies to the top.

  2. Ashley Pope’s avatar

    Thanks for this. Something I’m learning a lot about right now is taking my time. Unpack it. People are complicated beings and so are our characters–at least, they should be. Hope you’re settling in to your new home!

  3. Megan C.’s avatar

    I think you make a great point in this post. I hate reading a book with an elephant-in-the-room that no one takes the time to even look at. Good luck with your move! Thanks for great info!

  4. Sarah Ahiers’s avatar

    This was a great post! I constantly worry that I don’t pay enough attention to minor injuries my characters sustain throughout the timespan of the plot.

    Also, WELCOME TO MINNEAPOLIS! We’re glad to have you!

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