I’m reading a book right now that is making me feel things. This, from a writer’s perspective, is an awesome accomplishment. He, the author, has created characters that make me hurt. He has put me in scenarios that scare me, all despite it being based in a fantasy world that couldn’t possibly exist. Even so, it moves me, and carries real world weight for me as a reader. How cool is that?
Pretty flipping cool from the view of a writer, but super inconvenient for me, the reader. I am an emotional sponge. If I am already upset, knowing others are upset (even for completely unrelated reasons) will only intensify my emotions. On the flip side, if I am in a depressive mood, but surrounded by happy people, I will easily perk up. One of the worst situations, though, is when I am in a good mood, then a character’s emotions drag me into depression with them.
I wanted to take a moment and figure out what made this character real to me, and gave him enough emotional weight to drag me down with him:
The character wasn’t built on negativity
Any time I recall a “mary-sue” or “gary-stu” character, I can’t think of a time their character wasn’t enduring some tragic event. There are plenty of compelling stories where real people have lived mostly tragic lives, but the key there is “mostly.” There must be highs to know how low the lows go. If we are always wallowing in the valley, we don’t really know how far down we are. If we start at the top of the mountain, then we can see how far we have fallen and how much there is to lose. This is the key to developing a real character.
The supporting characters are well-developed and matter
This is probably super obvious, but it is worth mentioning. While it is of utmost importance to focus on and develop the main character, don’t let those supporting characters fall to the wayside. Relationships are hella important in both life and in your writing. Relationships can bring your character down, as well as help build them back up.
How others react to your character can be just as powerful
There is a point in this novel where a supporting character reacted in such a gentle and kind manner to the main character that it made the main character’s emotions much more real to me. So just like you don’t want to have an underdeveloped supporting cast, you also don’t want to forget who is in the room with your character when something is happening. If the main character is in a bar and hears word of his mother passing, how does he react? When he reacts, how do those closest to him react? I don’t even mean how do his friends or relatives react. I mean within reasonable proximity to your character when they get the news. How do they react to the character’s reaction? This can create a wonderful reflection of your character, as well as help intensify that emotion.
There is more than just sadness
I think a lot of writers forget about other emotions. Sadness is so powerful and is very easy to visually represent in writing. However, some of my favorite novels explore many layers of emotion. Anger, jealousy, happiness, etc. All these emotions are powerful. Of course, don’t hesitate to give me some sadness, but that sadness is so much more poignant when we know how the character acts while feeling all the other layers of emotion.
Don’t discount the small stuff
Of course a character’s parents dying is going to be painful for a reader. Of course, the birth of a baby is probably going to be a joyous moment for the reader. These are major, life-altering events that many people can probably empathize with in some way, but you know what else a reader may empathize with? The feeling of finishing a really good book, the feeling after hearing your supposed friend make fun of you, the feeling of stubbing your toe on your bed post, the feeling when a close friend moves away. etc. These small events may not illicit strong emotions, but it creates different levels of emotion for your character. It’s easy to show a baseline, content character, and it is nearly as easy to show a character reach a deep level of any particular emotion. It is just as important, though, to show varying levels of these emotions, so the character is real to the reader.
Life isn’t convenient, don’t make the bad stuff convenient
How many times have you heard of people getting into car wrecks on their way to their last final for the semester? There has been so much build up, so much riding on this, and the person is either super confident or super terrified, but all that changes in an instant when they get into a fender bender on the road. Now they are worried about paying to have their car fixed. Now they must make up the final. Now they must worry about insurance going up. Suddenly, the anxiety from before seems much more insignificant than it did when it was the person’s only focus. That’s how life works. I feel the bad stuff almost always happens when we are already dealing with a lot. It is shocking in real life, and it will be just as shocking on the page, but, again, you don’t have to always focus on the negative. Maybe something wonderful happens during a tragedy. Surprise us!
Just based on what I’ve read so far in this book, these are some of the key elements in making an emotional sponge like me a sloppy mess. What do you think? Let me know, and comment below!