The Reader-Character Connection

Recently, I shared some professional criticism I’d received on some short stories of mine.  Through this valuable feedback, I learned I am lacking polish in two areas:  setting the scene for the reader (which I discussed last week) and connecting the reader emotionally to the character, which we will take on now.

After some research, here are some general rules I discovered about connecting the reader to the character emotionally:

1)      Show , don’t tell.  If there were a ten commandments of fiction writing, this would be the first thing chiseled on the stone.  It’s important to show your reader the character’s emotion, instead of just telling them what he feels.  Consider the following two examples:

“Heat enveloped Larry’s face.  The muscles in his neck and jaw contracted and his hands tightened into large, pulsing white fists.”

or

“Larry got angry.”

Which do you think is more effective in connecting the reader with Larry’s emotion?

2)      Nobody’s perfect.  We could go on and on about this one:  what is perfection?  Who is responsible for defining it?  Why the heck is it so important?  But the way this basic element translates to storytelling is this:  we relate to people best through our shared flaws.  No one wants to be friends with someone who is perfect (how exhausting!) and, thus, your characters should be blemished as well.

3)      Be honest.  We’ve all seen movies and we know right from wrong.  We know how people are “supposed” to react to different situations.  But imagine yourself in the same circumstances and think honestly about how you would respond.  If you can’t sincerely feel the emotion, the reader won’t either.  In the above example about Larry, if you didn’t tighten at least one muscle in your body or curl your hands into fists when you wrote that sentence, then the reader won’t feel that emotion either.

Before I started researching how to accomplish a reader-character connection, I tried to imagine the characters I personally formed a connection with in the past.  One character who popped into my mind was the narrator in a short story by Jennifer Weiner.  Right away, you meet this witty, smart, polite girl.  Then, a few pages in, after you get to know her a little, she is walking through a room and she overhears someone talking in disgust about the “crater” on her face.  The narrator then reveals that she does indeed have a large scar “the size of the bottom of a soda can” on her cheek.  When I realize that she has this disfiguring visible flaw and that she is comfortable with herself despite the mocking she receives, she scales in my esteem.  The connection is made.

Think about the characters you’ve connected to in the past.  What was it about them that pulled you in?

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