By Joe Moore
While reading the news recently, a story caught my attention: At least 25 dead in Hong Kong ferry collision. Apparently, two vessels collided, killing 25. More than a dozen others were missing. It’s being called one of Hong Kong’s worst maritime accidents.
Almost every day we read or hear about tragedies in the news: earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, fires, mass killings. As human beings, even the most distant, obscure news of fellow humans losing their lives or encountering other tragedies usually draws some emotion, even if it’s fleeting. But unless we’re directly connected with the people in those news stories, our emotional reaction and interest is often shallow at best. The reason is that we know virtually nothing about them. They are just numbers and statistics. If we take the time to read the article, we may see some additional details that make the people involved a little more real. There may be a human interest angle that grabs our attention for a moment or two before we turn the newspaper page or click on the next link. But basically, we don’t care deeply because we have no emotional connection with them.
As writers, when it comes to our readers, if they have little or no emotional connection with the characters in our books, they won’t care what happens to them. And if they don’t care, we’re in trouble.
An emotional connection is created when a reader formulates conclusions about our characters’ personalities based on what we show the characters doing and saying. It’s not good enough for the narrator to “tell” the reader what a brave and generous guy our protagonist is or that our antagonist is a heinous villain. We have to show the reader through the characters’ actions, dialogue, interior thoughts and reasoning, and the way they treat others and their life choices from one situation to the next. Then a connection can start to form.
A solid approach to establishing each of these is to ask: what would you do? How would you react to a situation that you’ve created in your story? It doesn’t matter whether you’re assuming the persona of the protagonist, antagonist, secondary character or a mere walk-on. You are a human and so are they. They should act and react like humans, think like humans, and reason like humans. Only when they do will the reader form the critical bond or connection. Otherwise, all you have is two-dimensional paper-doll cutouts lacking depth and dimension.
Some helpful techniques include using universal experiences. Who has not told a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? Who hasn’t been faced with deciding between what’s right and what’s easy? Who hasn’t felt animosity or even hate for someone who has wronged you? When your character is in a similar situation, examine how you would react?
If you want your reader to like your character, analyze what it is that makes you like or love someone in real life. Use those emotional traits to build your character. And the opposite is also true. To create a character you want the reader to hate or despise, look for someone you dislike and figure out why. Are they egotistical, self-centered, mettlesome, cold, cruel, or mean? Utilize those universal feelings to build a strong antagonist. But never lose sight of the fact that you’re dealing with humans. Even Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader had strong human characteristics, good and bad.
One universal element that we all can relate to is pain—both physical and mental. Don’t be afraid to dish out the pain when it comes to developing your characters. It’s okay to put pain in their path because it gives them an opportunity to overcome something and by doing so become stronger or wiser or both. Pain, like any other obstacle, is an opportunity for character growth.
The more human you can make your characters, the better chance you’ll have of your readers forming a connection with them. Always consider how you would react, then have your characters act in a similar, logical manner. And throw in a shot of pain once in a while to keep things interesting.
What about you? Think of your most memorable characters, as a writer and/or reader. What made the two of you connect?