Writing Secrets: We care about people, not events

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

Events, even carefully described disasters, don’t trigger our emotions. Only people can do that.

We once had a mentoring participant who asked if readers really cared about the characters. “Don’t they just want exciting events and plots that move forward quickly?”

I gave him a long explanatory reply, but to you I’ll give the short answer. “No.”

As a writer, your aim is to immerse your readers in the flow of events so they experience these along with your characters. You don’t simply want to describe emotions, or excite an idle interest in them. You want to trigger the same emotions in your reader as you’re developing in your characters. You want your reader to live through them.

You can’t do this without well-drawn characters who become as real to your readers as those in their own lives. But take it a step further.

You do need vivid characters, but that’s not enough. We also need to know what that character wants badly before the event strikes. He might want to climb a mountain just once more, before he grows too old and frail, to look down on his beloved home-town. Or perhaps she hopes to win back someone’s heart, after she wronged them.

Now his knee dislocation is heart-rending. Before, we might have shrugged and thought: bad, painful maybe, but not the end of the world. And the delayed train, which prevents her from reaching her beloved before he or she flies away, becomes a tragedy.

Know what your character wants at any moment – at a major and minor level. And set up well. If you look at it a certain way, writing is all about setting things up, and paying them off.

Set up the fact that your character is desperate to reach the store, to buy the dress she is certain will win her that job. She needs something for the interview, something which shows all that she is: her professionalism, her creativity and her individuality. If she only gets that dress, she’ll be able to sweep in with confidence.

But there’s a power failure. Just as she parks, all the lights go out and the doors of the centre close.

Any event, even a broken heel, can trigger emotion within us – whether it’s horror (there’s a serial killer following her), disappointment (she must hobble into her interview feeling flustered) or amusement (she’s been showing off).

Know your character well. Know what they want and make us privy to that. Allow us to experience that need or desire along with them. Set it up well, we’ll be devastated by the pay-off.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Be bold and let your characters’ emotions show

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