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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » How do you create emotional connections between your reader and the character?

   
Author Topic: How do you create emotional connections between your reader and the character?
Brendan
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What is it that makes the reader feel for your created character? In this discussion, I am looking tips on how to create emotional triggers and/or ways to develop your character that make the reader care, even cry, rather than the "torture your character" byline. (I can torture my characters all I want, as a past challenge showed, and still not make the emotional connection strong.) Are there any ideas about how to pace the emotional reveal to better achieve connection?
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extrinsic
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An answer is in the question. Pose emotionally charged characters with emotionally charged desires in emotionally charged settings with emotionally charged oppositions preventing them from achieving their desires.

Open with the desire (purpose) or open with the opposition (problem) that compels a protagonist to act out of desire to alleviate the problem. An opening isn't complete until both are introduced.

Another answer is to introduce a nobly flawed protagonist, again, with emotionally charged desrire and opposition so readers self-identify with her, him, or it, for the sake of tension's empathy, so readers care about her, him, or it and what will happen to her, him, or it..

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MartinV
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I think the idea is that your character must love something that the reader can relate to. Then endanger what that character loves. This will effect reader's emotion to it.

Hunger Games have been discussed a lot on Hatrack but there is one point I would like to make. I am envious of the beginning of the Games. It is so simple yet it absolutely hooks the reader with chapter one. How? We see Katniss' fear of being picked at the reaping. That is a selfish emotion and we don't sympathize with her just yet. But then we see the love she bears for her sister. That is something noble, something that calls to us. And then in a single moment the selfish fear is replaced by the noble one. That moment is where Hunger Games hooks the reader until the end.

Self sacrifice is a powerful motiff but it's been dumbed down too much by movies and books to the point of a cliche. Still, done right, as it was done in the Games, it can produce the hook a writer needs.

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Meredith
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Advice that I have heard:

To show that the character is loved by someone in the story. Loved characters are lovable.

And to put the character into a situation where the reader can relate to their emotions and/or problems.

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Meredith
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Check out this interview with Dan Wells for more tips. If he can make a sociopath sympathetic . . .
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MAP
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I think different things will make different people sympathetic. I know that is not a great answer.

I think you just need to create a real, three-dimensional character, and people will either like the character or not. You can give them noble attributes that people admire or put them in a sympathetic situation, but it really comes down to if they feel real for me.

I don't care about cardboard characters. I only care about characters that feel like living, breathing beings. [Smile]

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MattLeo
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If there were a formula, everyone would be able to do it. But I think there are some preconditions and strategies to consider.

You have to start with making the character seem real and believable, which is not necessarily the same as making the character *realistic* -- a wizard or demi-god will be inherently unrealistic but can seem real. Make the character memorable before you make him sympathetic. It's a bit much to ask the readers to care about a generic, cookie-cutter character.

I think plotting is important in the bonding process too. Here's a thought experiment: suppose I describe the most admirable person imaginable. Do you think you'd identify with that character, or care about him? Now let me describe an average person, with the usual share of idiosyncrasies, then let me *show* him pursuing some understandable goal under challenging and interesting circumstances. *Now* do you care about that character?

I think readers of fantasy are primed to identify with a powerful character, but too often speculative fiction manuscripts have characters that are *exclusively* defined by how powerful they are with very little recognizable individuality. Furthermore many manuscripts demand the reader have a detailed grasp of the world building details before he can begin to understand what the character is up to. If I don't know who the character is or what he's up to, I'm not going to care.

Over the course of a longer work like a book, one strategy that works is to get the reader to change his mind about a character. You start out maybe having reasons not to like the character or not to be interested in the character, and then as the character follows his arc you understand him better and begin to take an interest in his fate. This is a powerful generator of reader attachment.

Of course that's easier to do with secondary characters, but if you can get readers interested in what the protagonist is up to early, they don't have to *love* him from the outset to read on. Trying too hard to produce that right at the outset is going to provoke a perverse reaction.

If you can start people feeling ambiguous or even disliking the protagonist a little bit without losing them entirely, then you can win them over and "close the deal". The mind abhors conflicting feelings and presented with an ambiguous character, readers will eventually decide to like or dislike him strongly to avoid the cognitive dissonance of liking and disliking him at the same time. If they choose to like him they'll like him so much his faults seem petty; if they choose to dislike him they'll loathe him so much they'll color his virtues as vices.

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Merlion-Emrys
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For my part, one of the things I've found most perplexing in my years here on Hatrack is all the comments people make to the effect of "you haven't given me a reason to care about the character." On a personal level, this is nearly incomprehensible to me...I more or less automatically care, to some degree, about any person fictional or otherwise and must be given a reason not to care. I also don't identify with the opinion or tendency many have wherein for them the character(s) is the most important part of a story or the need to experience the narrative through a character.

So to me on the most basic level of my own feelings, my reaction is make your characters however they are to you in your mind or whatever way best fulfills the needs of your story. In the end, as MAP says and as I've been saying about this and everything else for years, at the end of the day each individual reader is going to like your character or not, identify with your character or not etc based on their own personal views feelings and opinions (this goes for "hooks", plotlines, writing styles and basically everything else as well.)

When I write while I do take into account some of the "common wisdom" things we learn here and the opinions and tendencies I hear from people, I'm not honestly thinking much about how I'm going to go about creating an emotional connection between this character and anyone who reads the story both because in my own heart I assume that there will be a connection simply because it is a person (regardless of species) and also because I know anything I do, any technique I use to that end will work for some, have little effects for others and probably have the opposite effect on at least a few. So instead of worrying about things over which I have no control, I figure out who and what the character is and endeavor to make them the best-communicated most realized version of them they can be.

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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
a wizard or demi-god will be inherently unrealistic but can seem real.
I'm not sure I entirely agree. Most people in this world believe there is in fact at least one deity, and quite a few believe in multiple ones. Many people believe in various other supernatural things as well. And most of the magical/supernatural/spiritual phenomena in stories are based upon things that were (and in some cases still are) believed in and/or they stem from a sort of natural progression of how the world works.

So, I think "realistic" is as good a way to put how a character should be, regardless of nature, as any. If all things about the character are consistent with themselves and the world in which they live, and make it resonate and consistent with what we know or feel of our reality, it will be realistic.

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extrinsic
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Another method or actually combination of methods for building close emotional connections between readers and a viewpoint character is to write in scene-show as much as possible and as little as possible in narrator recital-tell.

That method involves emphasizing character voices over narrator voice, staying in the immediate time, place, and situation of the unfolding action, where narrator voice steps outside a scene's time, place, and situation by directly addressing readers as if from on a stage from behind a lectern under a spotlight narrating a family vacation slide show recital.

Parallel to voice in those regards is methods reporting stream of consciousness thoughts. Speech or thought discourse creates closer connections than recital. Nothing much like eavesdropping on intimate thoughts to arose reader curiosity and evoke emotional connections, especially if they're spicey thoughts.

[ January 04, 2012, 11:41 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Brendan
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Thanks for the above points, guys. Do any of you have any points on the pacing of emotional revelations, or the placement of certain pieces of information before or after others?
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extrinsic
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The way I understand plot pacing and so much more about dramatic structure is it turns on pivots of discovery (revelation) and reversal (setback, obstacle, opposition, resistance, refusal, outright denial, etc.). So much so that the ancients had terms for two significant major turn types when they are artfully abrupt and profound: anagnorisis (discovery) and peripetia (reversal). And consequently, whether one or the other or both occurs in a plot, used for distinguishing between a complex plot and a simple plot, the latter of which has neither. No value judgments though, no especial preference for one or the other by most audiences anymore.

A fully-realized drama, comedy or tragedy or other, has five major turns: inciting crisis, realization crisis, climax, tragic crisis, and final crisis. Also, eight minor turns: opening action introducing a main dramatic complication (minor turn 1) then the inciting crisis, three rising action actions (minor turns 2 to 4) leading to the realization crisis, followed by the climax act--more anon--followed by the tragic crisis, followed by three falling action actions (minor turns 5 to 7) then the final crisis, then the denouement or final outcome of the main dramatic complication (minor turn 8).

The major and minor turns pivot on emotional disequilibrium. Escalating emotional instability rising toward a climax and de-escalating emotional instability falling toward a denouement.

The climax turn stumps many a writer due in large part to applying a reader perspective rather than a writer perspective to what it is. In a sense, there are two climaxes to a drama, the climax of dramatic action and the emotional climax readers feel near the latter part of a narrative. At the dramatic action climax, readers' emotions continue to rise while the dramatic action begins to decline.

Four principal features mark a dramatic climax: efforts to address a main dramatic complication are greatest, antagonism forces are at greatest opposition, all available information needed to address the main dramatic complication is known, and the outcome is in greatest doubt. There, that's a useful guiding principle for the pacing of "emotional revelations and the placement of certain pieces of information before or after others."

The last, doubt of outcome has the greatest power to influence reader emotional stimulation that will carry readers on to a bitter end. Then at the dramatic climax is when a decision to act most convincingly for successful outcomes occurs, and then, of course, the tragic crisis reverses that conviction and reinforces doubt for a successful outcome. Falling action then comes to an accomodation with failure before the final crisis presents a last hope for redemption. Then if things started out in bad fortunes, they can end in good fortunes, or from good to bad, or bad to worse, or result in a personal growth or decline, moral or psychological, as in a coming of age maturation accomplishment, though, again, from good to bad, bad to good, or bad to worse. I'm of the opinion, shared by many writing and reading consensuses, that good to better or great fortunes just doesn't make for engaging drama.

These above plotting principles may not suit every writers' sensibilities. When used formulaically they result in formulaic and emotionally lackluster plots. I've found they are most useful and very effective for every phase of writing, be it prewriting, planning, draft writing, revision, or final editing, and as an editor for evaulating a manuscript's strengths and shortcomings so that I may comment insightfully and somewhat intelligently.

[ January 05, 2012, 12:45 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Smaug
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Back on the original question, I think that to create an emotional bond between the character and the reader requires touching on things that are common to everyone. At least, most of the time. For example, in Patrick Rothfuss' book "The Name of the Wind", the main character has his family slaughtered by some evil dudes. Now I think we can all relate to how that would feel--if our families were slaughtered, we'd be crushed--some of us more than others, some of us devastated. We've all got commonalities that we can relate to--someone dies of an overdose, a kid is hit by a car, we get massive bills and have to pay the debt, etc. etc.

Giving those kinds of things to your character will help build emotional ties. And I think the reader has to have some reason to like the character as well, in order to really care that all this is happening to him or her.

[ January 05, 2012, 10:26 PM: Message edited by: Smaug ]

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Merlion-Emrys
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Just a quick note, and actually not trying to contradict you, Mr. Great Red-Gold Wyrm, but especially in the early parts of "The Name of the Wind" my primary emotional connection to the main character was an overwhelming desire to reach into the pages, through the dimensions and wring his smug little neck.

This illustrates to me not only the variation in people's perceptions (although of course I did identify with his eventual loss and all that) but also that their are many many different types of emotional connections, and the ways of achieving them are different for each type, which makes the original question a little difficult to answer in any but a general way, or by creating a lengthy list or having a more specific goal in mind...

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Smaug
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quote:
especially in the early parts of "The Name of the Wind" my primary emotional connection to the main character was an overwhelming desire to reach into the pages, through the dimensions and wring his smug little neck.
[Big Grin]

Ha ha! Yep. There's that too. I still want to do that now that I've finished book two.

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Merlion-Emrys
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Despite their far lesser screen time, I myself feel a good deal more connection to, and interest in Master Elodin and Bast than I do with Kvothe (of course in the case of Bast, there's also a certain amount of swooning going on.)

Most of the reasons for this have little to do with anything the author did as such...it has to do primarily with the nature of the characters themselves. I am interested in them both for their abilities/natures (and in Bast for his hotness), and fond of them both for their eccentric behavior (Quiet! He has the ears of a hawk!)

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Smaug
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Yes. Those two characters are most interesting. Kvothe--I'm having difficulty liking, and I wrote that in my review at Goodreads.com. Gave the book overall 3 stars out of 5. I may have used a poor example to illustrate my point, as frankly, I don't feel emotionally connected to Kvothe. I do though feel connected to the story itself in some bizarre way, because when I was reading it, I had to keep reading...it was a page turner for not a lot of explicable reasons.

But now, a book like "Where the Red Fern Grows" if you've read it. I'm thinking nearly everyone has had a pet that they loved die, but even if not, death itself, when it comes unexpectedly to a loved one is pretty much universally sad. Now, the first time I heard that particular story, I was in third grade and the teacher read it to us, a chapter a day. I didn't cry though, until I actually read it myself. And I still don't know why, because I had never, up to that point in my life, had anyone, pet or human, die on me. Strange that the emotional connection was still made.

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redux
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I've been giving this topic considerable thought and I think one way of answering what makes readers feel for a character is to perhaps look at a despicable character from literature.

Take Alex from a Clockwork Orange. Words that describe him: Murderer, rapist, sociopath. He is so despicable, and yet as narrator quite likable. Why? Because he has a quick wit, a consistent personality, and he wants what most people want - freedom of choice. So, at least on some level, the reader can identify with Alex.

So I propose that a reader will more than likely connect with a character, feel for that character, only if they are able to identify with that character. The character must want something that the reader can sympathize with and understand and perhaps even desire.

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