When was the last time you cried or laughed aloud while reading a book? Do you remember why the story affected you so? Let’s discuss what it takes as a writer to create fiction that will make our readers laugh or cry.
Is it the story? The answer to that is yes and no, for a story alone has no power to make the reader’s emotions erupt. Yet a bad story can ruin everything. Most importantly, for emotions to come to the surface, the reader has to have people to care about. Real people with all their faults, their dreams and cares, their happiness and sadness. Okay, easy to say. There’s probably not a writer alive who doesn’t know the truth of this. Sadly, though many writers don’t know how to go about creating characters readers will embrace.
If you have a problem making your readers laugh and cry, and grow so involved in your story they can’t put down your book, then it may be because your characters are two dimensional cardboard people. Who cares if they live or die? You’ve heard the expression, ‘too dumb to live.’ We don’t care if their dreams come true, or even if they have dreams. Just who cares?
What is sometimes missing is often referred to as angst. The dictionary calls angst an almost neurotic feeling of anxiety. Translating anxiety to anxious for the sake of characterization, we find a second meaning: intent, fervent, desirous. As writers, we know that feelings are caused by something that is almost intangible.
A little off the subject, but something that illustrates the point I’m trying to make about characterization. I once read this explanation by someone with a terribly high IQ, that if you leave a fan running in a room, the room will not be cooler, it will only feel like it. WHAT? Clearly, this woman does not understand human perception. If we perceive something, then it is.
So, when you create a character, first get under their skin until you feel their heart beating, hear the voices in their head, see a loved one with their eyes, hear a child’s laughter with their ears, feel the smooth skin of a lover with their fingers, smell the love pheromones with their nose, and taste morning coffee with their tongue. I could go on, but I’ll stop there. This is not easy.
Here’s the way I do it, but dealing with this dilemma of emotions in your story is different for each one of us. Find your own way if this won’t work for you. When the story and the voices of my characters begin to form in my mind, I do not write long outlines, or for that moment, don’t even take notes. My creativity stems from the freshness of each word, paragraph, page. I step into my character’s shoes and begin her story, writing like crazy. First draft probably runs on for four or five chapters. I’m getting acquainted with my protagonists, usually two, and my antagonist. The others are on the periphery for the moment. A bartender with a bald head and squinchy eyes, the little boy next door whose nose always runs, the woman my hero once loved who is so beautiful. These don’t concern me during the first draft, other than putting them in place as they show up.
By the fourth of fifth chapter I’m beginning to know my characters. Now I’m excited. For the next few days my mind plays with the story and the people and I make notes madly. Notes on envelopes, on toilet paper squares, on table napkins, on anything that’s handy wherever I happen to be when the idea hits. Each day I continue to write, but those notes begin to pile up. I’m fleshing out the scenes because I’ve grown acquainted with the people. I’m giving them a back story that will be dribbled through the book. I’m learning their faults, and give them some doozies, I’m learning why they behave the way they do. Where they came from, where they’re going, what they want. And best of all why the two of them are coming together. This I did not know when I wrote those first chapters. Often they paid little attention to each other.
Once I jot down all these new ideas, I return to the beginning and flesh out my scenes for the characters I now know so well I can live under their skin. And the story unfolds from there with few problems. This is always the way I’ve written my books. Some writers may not feel comfortable working this way. Find what works for you, but for goodness sake, don’t leave out the anxiety. And don’t forget: fervent, raring to go, intent and desirous emotional conflicts. Dig down deep inside yourself. There will be dark moments that will strengthen your character. Use those as well as the happy times, the fulfillment of dreams, the falling in love. And your readers will laugh and cry and turn the pages of your book as fast as they can read them.
This was a great post, Velda. And I'm so relieved to hear I'm not the only writer with notes on little scraps of paper all over my desk!
Great post, Velda! I'm with you 100%. I have to care about the characters I'm reading or writing about and I have to know them well. I joke that no one will ever accuse me of under-developed characters in my mystery novels. For me, it's character first, plot second.