One of the great things about fiction is the opportunity to step into someone else’s head and not only experience a new and different life, but to feel the excitement, anguish, and fear right along with the character. But why do some books elicit such deep emotions from the reader while others fall short? It’s all about connecting with the characters.
Have you ever read a book that you wanted to love, but you just couldn’t make yourself care what happened to the characters? Or maybe you wanted to know what happened, but you never felt any sympathy for or excitement with the characters? Either way, the problem is the same—you never developed a connection with the characters, so you never invested in their lives.
Why does it matter? Because people won’t read about characters they don’t care about.
Yes, you might find some readers who just want to know how the story ends, so they skim pages and skip long paragraphs to get to the last chapter (or, if you’re like me, you read the last chapter to see if you’ll like the ending, then decide if the book’s worth your time). Don’t give readers an excuse to skip pages! Instead, give them the chance to get to know your characters so they’re not merely curious to see what happens, they care about what happens.
How do you create meaningful connections with characters?
Stop skipping Act I.
Perhaps the most traditional (and well known) story structure is the three-act structure—beginning, middle, and end. Another way to understand and discus the three acts is:
- Act I: Introduction
- Act II: Body/Story
- Act III: Conclusion
In a ridiculously short summary, these three parts essentially mean:
- An introduction of characters, setting, and plot.
- Watching the characters interact with each other within the setting to advance the plot.
- When the characters work through the final plot issues to resolve the story with a satisfactory ending.
The part I really want to focus on is Act I, the introduction. It’s becoming more and more common to see that part of the story stripped down (if not completely eliminated) in an effort to jump right into the plot.
Don’t. Do it.
For years now, writers have been told to start their stories with action. Yes, that is absolutely true, but that doesn’t mean you dive right into the plot without first introducing all of the key players and plot elements. Don’t sacrifice Act I for the sake of action. When you do that, your reader doesn’t know whether to root for the woman on the run or hope she gets caught—without an introduction, you throw the reader into a confusing situation, and you never want to confuse the reader.
How, then, do you start your story?
- Start with action that’s appropriate for the genre and story. If you’re writing suspense, it’s understandable and often acceptable to open with a woman on the run, then reveal that character to the reader as you go. That’s part of the suspense plot. If, however, you’re writing women’s fiction, the action needs to appropriate: a working woman grocery shopping, a mom pushing a stroller while she jogs, two sisters sorting through their deceased father’s possessions. All of these things are active. It doesn’t have to be a car chase or gun fight, as long as it doesn’t start with the main character thinking for two pages.
- Introduce the main characters.Imagine you’re at a barbecue. Your friend brings over a stranger and says, “This is my co-worker, Larry.” Besides what Larry looks like, you only know one thing about him. That’s not a great introduction, but that’s how many authors start their books. Instead, use this introduction: “This is my co-worker, Larry. He just moved to town last month and is looking for a new massage therapist to treat back issues resulting from a car accident. I thought you might be able to help him since you work at a chiropractor’s office and have connections in that industry.” Wow. Now the reader understands Larry. They may not be able to relate to his situation, but they’ll understand why he hires someone to walk his dog and stop thinking he’s lazy. You’ve helped create empathy.
- Show the setting. Where and when a story takes place will impact the events of the story. For example, a cruise ship is sinking. How should the reader react to that? It’s hard to know if you don’t know when or where the ship is sinking. If it’s off the coast of Florida in 2005, the Coast Guard will be there with speed boats and helicopters—exciting! If, however, it’s 1912 in the North Atlantic Ocean, it’s tragic. Make sure you show the setting.
- Establish normalcy. If the reader doesn’t know what life is like for your characters, they won’t know how to respond when unusual events happen. Say your character is sitting in her car at a red light when two cars plow into the intersection and crash. She calmly calls 9-1-1, gives a statement when the police arrive, then goes home where her husband hugs her and tells her how proud he is of her and how amazing she is. Why? Without establishing her normal—that she’s an army veteran with severe PTSD who curls into a ball and suffers flashbacks when a balloon pops—there’s no way to understand her breakthrough by being able to call for help and drive herself home. Take the time to establish normalcy so the reader can recognize important moments.
By including these four elements, you’ll make it easier for your reader to connect with the characters, which will establish the emotional connection that pulls the reader through the story.