Readers want an emotional experience. They want to feel something, not about the story but about themselves. While reading, they want a sense of play. They want to anticipate, guess, think and judge, yes, but equally they want to emerge from reading a story feeling competent, like they have been through something and, most importantly, as if they’ve connected with a story’s characters, living their fictional experience.
Creating that “as if” experience takes more than just walking readers through the plot. Readers own a story only when they have felt it. Feeling can be provoked by plot developments, obviously, but only to a limited extent. Plot twists and turns mostly cause surprise. That’s fine as far as it goes, but a deeper bond and empathy is generated not by plot events but by something that readers feel for the characters about whom they’re reading.
–Donald Maass on connection.
Maass is one of the most well-known literary agents on the scene at the moment, so when he talks, people listen.
For what it’s worth, I’m a character-first writer and I’ve always believed in the idea that you can sell just about any plot so long as your readers buy your characters first. And it’s something I’ve been thinking about more and more recently, as I try and mentally deconstruct why some stories work for me and others don’t. What has me gripping the edge of my seat or bawling my eyes out in one novel, while another, superficially similar story has me struggling to pick it up?
Characters. It’s always, always about characters.
A while back, at our local writer’s group, we had a workshop on reading our own works aloud. Which is, yanno. Terrifying. But one of the hardest parts of the exercise I found was actually picking a piece to read. It couldn’t be very long (I didn’t really want to be talking for one minute, let alone five or ten), and I also was totally 100% unprepared so I just had to grab whatever I could find out of my BAD MEME draft.
In the end, the piece I chose was this, with a little intro that it’s a scene between a long-term supernatural narrator, and someone who’s only just come into their non-human powers [also content warning for discussion of suicide and impulsive violence]:
We sit on the Myer overpass and watch the sun rise, big splashes of orange and pink slowly fading out from black and into the steel grey of another overcast Melbourne winter’s day. Lee is beside me, swinging her legs over the edge, watching the scattering of early morning commuters emerge from the dark.
“I used to be afraid of heights, you know,” Lee tells me. “I’d stand on my balcony sometimes, looking down. Imagining myself jumping. Wondering what would be left when I hit the ground below.”
“What floor?” I ask. I’ve got a cigarette. A real one this time, stolen from the pocket of a man with lungs full of tar. He’ll thank me later, I’m sure.
“Second,” Lee says.
“Gotta be above fourth to be sure.”
“Yeah,” she says. “I know. I looked it up.”
Serious ideation, then. The stuff they have hotlines and interventions for. All mortals get violent thoughts sometimes: a woman picks up a pair of scissors and has a sudden flash of stabbing them through the bones and sinew of her hand; a man imagines pressing just that little bit harder while shaving; a child is struck by a sudden impulse to push a friend into traffic. Bad memes that go as soon as they’ve come, the mental equivalent of walking past a sudden winter’s draft.
Before I can say anything, Lee continues:
“Do you… weirdwhatsit–”
“–wordbabies do a lot of this dramatic sitting on top of buildings stuff, then?”
I laugh at that, blowing out a ring of smoke and watching it get lost in the morning breeze. “Mortals don’t see us and falls won’t kill us. What would you do?” What are you doing, Roxanne Lee?
“I think,” she says, peering over the edge, feet drumming against the glass with every swing. “I think, it’s time to fly.” And she pushes herself off the edge.
She screams on the way down. I don’t, and I also don’t fall in my ass on the street, either.
“Holy shit,” she says when I land next to her, clipped wings folding away in a feathery whumph. “You weren’t kidding.”
The few people on the street keep looking at us, then looking away just as quickly, brows furrowed and eyes glazed. This morning, I thought I saw a girl jump from the top of the Myer overpass. Except…
I extend a claw, and Lee uses it to haul herself upright. “So what happens now?”
“Now? Now, you live,” I say.
So why this section, out of all sections? Particularly given not much of much importance happens in it; it’s essentially just two people talking about stuff my audience would’ve had no clue about. Why not the opening of the novel, or some random action sequence; both of which were popular choices from others in the group?
Well, it goes back to what Maass was saying up above. The reason I chose this chunk of text out of all chunks is that it presents an emotional journey. Just a little one, wrapped up in a few hundred words, but it’s there; Roxx’s rediscovery of joie de vivre, Lain’s care for Roxx in his role as mentor-figure. I figured if I only had a heartbeat to hook people in, then I was going to have to use something like this.
I got some pretty good feedback–on the writing if not necessarily the reading–so I figure I did okay.
But this was the trick, and it’s not a hard one; people connect to emotional journeys and they also connect to characters who connect to other characters. I think the latter is important in first person narrators in particular. It seems trendy in urban fantasy to have Badass Longcoat narrators who are obviously too cool for the people around them. These are the snarky, cynical alpha loners who are The Best at whatever brand of UFing they do, and maybe they have some hangers-on or colleagues, but not confidants or equals or–gods forbid–mentors. I admit I really, really struggle with these sort of characters.
Snark and cynicism is fine, but if you want me to actually care then you need to show me your character actually caring. And not just in that superficial, paternalistic “I care about you for your own good” way, either.1 Care in ways that show very personal vulnerability, or true compassion. Care in ways that show a character being awkward and uncool because, trust me, nearly every one of your readers has, at times, tried to hide their caring about something–a person, a hobby, a cause–because they’ve thought other people will judge them negatively for it. Show your other characters making that realisation and being caring enough not to shun the first character for it.
This is all sleight-of-hand, basic Emotional Arc 101 stuff but, yanno. It works. It’s not always easy to pull off, but it works. I also think it doesn’t always get enough attention, because it’s “unsexy” compared to things like wordbuilding and plotting. But, trust me; that stuff can come later. Because you can have all the fantastical worlds and convoluted thrills in the universe, but if you’ve got no one to put inside them?
Then you just don’t have a story.
- Or, even worse, the abstract “I care about everything because I am Good” way. [↩]