Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Writing Wednesday: The Addictive Power of Emotional Investment

Hello and welcome back to another Writing Wednesday! After the non-stop rhetorical thrills of Prose Summer Camp, I thought we'd ease back into the bigger writing picture with a look at that classic writer pass time: how to break a reader's heart and have them beg you to do it again.

That's right! Today's post is all about how you as an author can build characters and structure plots that will make total strangers stay up all night feeling real feels for made up people. So without further ado, let's dive into...

Writing Wednesday: The Addictive Power of Emotional Investment

I've talked about the importance of building reader investment before on the blog, but that article mostly focused on the mechanical plot tricks behind getting readers on board with your story. Today, we're going to go for the heart and talk about how to create, build, and manipulate your reader's emotions to create a story they'll never forget.

Warning to my readers: this is article is going to make me sound a bit like a sociopath who delights in toying with your hearts. I swear this is not the case! I hurt just as much as you do when good characters get put through the mill, but all writers are benevolent sadists to some degree. Sky high emotional stakes don't happen on their own. If I'm going to give you the emotional roller coaster that is a really good novel, then I have to get a little manipulative. Someone's got to work out just how hard to bank the curves on that roller coaster, after all!

At this point, I'm sure some of you are wondering, do we have to be that mean? There are plenty of good books that don't break reader hearts. Gah, Rachel, don't be a jerk!

I know, I know, I feel this way, too. But do me a favor and think back to the last book you really loved. Not one you enjoyed or respected for its artistry or even recced to others, but a book you loved. The one that made you stay up all night reading and left you feeling empty and lost when it was over, but better for having read it...and maybe even ready to read it again. That book.

What was it that made that book so special? The world is full of well written books with great plots, but if you're a regular reader, then you know all too well that certain books hit us way harder than others. They may not even have been the best books, but they got to us on a deep level.

For me, that getting is what it's all about. The art of making your reader--this stranger whom I've never met--feel something real for my fictional people is the highest level of writing achievement for me. If I can make you feel, if I can make you cry and triumph and hate and love, then I've done more than entertain. I've changed you. I've taken a made up story and turned it into a real, honest emotional experience.

That is the power of really good fiction. That gift of emotion is what makes story so powerful, and being able to produce these enormous emotion pay-offs on the regular is what separates authors who know what they're doing from authors who got lucky. That said, it's not easy. Just speaking personally, figuring out my emotional end goal for a book or series and then writing towards it in a believable and natural way is one of the trickiest, most frustrating stunts I pull off as a writer. But as you can see from the paragraphs above, it's also the most rewarding, which is why I work so hard to make it happen.

So what steps can you take to ensure this emotional connection in your own fiction? Well, not knowing you, your target readership, or your story, I can't tell you specifically. But I can show you the steps I follow in my own work to keep myself on track.

To be clear: this isn't a formula for emotional writing success (there's no such thing). That said, I believe if you hit all these points to the best of your ability, you can't help but come out with something that will move people. Whether it moves them a little or a lot is up to your characters and story and how well you pull them off, but in my experience, just writing with this stuff in my head inevitably leads to better, deeper emotions in my characters and scenes.

So now that I've sold it to the sky, let's talk about how all of this emotional roller coaster building actually works.

Step 1: Give Them Someone to Care About

Having good characters with great GMC is the base line for entry when you're trying to write quality fiction, But while filling your cast with interesting, likable, well motivated character who have good conflict is the starting goal for any writer who cares about their craft, creating characters who will snare a reader's heart to the level needed to run it through the wringer can be a bit trickier.

At the simplest level, it all comes down to "is this a person we can root for?" You want to build characters who will charm, inspire, intrigue, or otherwise draw in readers with their personality, but to reach that next emotional level, they have to also be vulnerable in a way readers can not only understand and empathize with, but that is also interesting in its own right.

That's a lot to unpack, so I'm going to use my own character as an example. Eli Monpress is the titular character of my first series. He's also hands down the most fan invested character I've ever written (though Julius might be giving him a run for his money in this next book). Seriously, people have written me novels expressing concern and love over Eli like he was a real person we both knew! That's not the reaction you get from a reader who's merely "entertained."

So what made Eli so popular? Well, at the time I was a new novelist just writing the character who interested me, but in hindsight, he was a perfect storm of the sort of character people fall in love with. He was a witty, charming underdog who got by on his wits. He was cocky and funny with audacity and ambition to spare, and yet underneath all of that, he was suffering from very real pain. His cocky front was just that: a wall to hide a very young man who was bravely struggling against a horrible and seemingly inescapable evil that he couldn't even talk about.

On this front, the emotional front, the otherwise unbeatable Eli was out matched in every way, and yet, somehow, he fought on. He survived his abuse and eventually, with the help of his friends, found a way to say no. I won't spoil the series, but the resolution of Eli's core character conflict was one of the most painful, triumphant, and emotional arcs I've ever written, and going by the reports of tears I received after The Spirit War released, it worked.

One of my primary rules as an author is that, when something works (or doesn't work), I have to find out why. There's no point in pulling off a triumph if you can't figure out how you did it and make it work that way every time. I've spent a lot of time trying to work out why Eli and Nico resonated so hard with my readers when other characters (that I liked just as much) didn't. In the end, I came to the same conclusion Pixar realized years before me.

This is the rule #1 of Pixar's famous 22 Rules of Storytelling for a reason. If you want to create a character people won't just enjoy, but really love, you have to give them something to fight for. Something internal. External goals are great for drama and to showcase a character's determination, but if you're aiming for the heartstrings (and you should be), then you have to build in an internal motivation for your character. Give them something deep they (and all of us) desperately want--acceptance, friendship, the escape from suffering--and then don't let them have it. Or, at least, not without the world's most ridiculous fight.

That struggle is truly the key. Letting your characters achieve their emotional goals might feel like growth, but if things come too easily, there's no drama, which means there's no point. Readers read for drama, and the harder you push that edge, the more you make that character (and the reader living vicariously through them) fight and suffer to reach their goals, the more invested everyone will be.

Characters engender love by being lovable, but suffering is what builds investment. The more you make your characters walk into that sword to get the thing they want more than life itself, the deeper, realer, and more precious they will become to your readership.

You can go overboard on this of course. Making characters suffer for no good reason other than to build drama is just emotional sadism, and many readers won't stand for it. Like I always say, readers are smart. You can't just have a mountain of shit land on a character for no reason and expect people to buy it.

Like everything else in writing, character suffering has to be well executed and thought out if it's going to work. There has to be reason behind all that suffering, a well understood wall for us to climb together with that character. It can be high as the sky and impossibly difficult--and should be--but it's our job as writers to create and explain the situations that will make readers believe in that wall, and why it should be climbed. That is the trick of good emotional storytelling: to create a character we want to succeed and then not only make us crawl through the blood and the mud along with them to get there, but to understand and accept why the journey is so hard in the first place.

Like I said, this isn't easy. Everything I just talked about requires an enormous amount of set up both in character design and story construction. You've got to create that loveable, yearning character. You've got to build the wall for them to climb. You've got to engineer and explain to reader why that wall is there and why it's so hard to climb. You have to set everything up, and then you have to make that character run the course you've built in the most dramatic and touching way possible.

All of these things are execution challenges that will push your creativity, your ear as an author, and flare for the dramatic to the limit. They are not easy, but they are vital work if you want to touch your readers on a deeper level than just "that was fun." It takes time, thought, luck, and a lot of reworking things to get that perfect character on that perfect emotional journey that also somehow lines up perfectly with your plot, but the struggle is absolutely worth it. Even if you don't quite pull it off, if you take the time and care to get this stuff right, if you really try to win that reader's heart, you book will automatically be deeper and more meaningful than it ever could have been without your work.

The good part to all of this is that (as with everything else in life) the more you practice, the easier this gets. Writing emotionally deep characters is a skill. Some people are talented at it right off the bat, others have to work their butts off. But like all skills, it can be learned. You just have to be willing to put in the work and pay attention.

I hope all of this has encouraged you to take a deeper look at your own characters. As we saw from my own stumbling into Eli, it is perfectly possible a great emotional character without thinking about all this stuff, but I think we can all agree that it's always better to know what you're doing rather than sitting back and counting on lightning to strike. It's tricky, persnickety work, but when you get letters from readers swearing at you up and down for making them weep at three in the morning because of something your characters did and demanding you drop everything and give them the next book in your series, I promise you, it will all be worth it!

Wow, this post got super long!

I was going to launch into the plot part of things, but I don't want to write a 10,000 word blog article, so I'm going to end here. I'll be back next week with the second half about building emotional investment through plot and storytelling, so be sure to come back next Wednesday for the thrilling conclusion!

Until then, if you're not already, please follow me on social media (Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Google+) to make sure you never miss a post. Also, in case you missed it, Travis wrote his own part one of an amazing post this Tuesday about should you form a business as an author. If you're making an income off your writing, or if even you're just looking ahead toward your future writing career, you should definitely check it out. It's technical, but in the best way!

Thank you as always for reading! I'll be back next week with the rest of our emotional adventure. Until then, keep writing, and I wish you all the best!

Yours always,


Kessie said...

I love this--the character pressing against that sword to try to get what they want. The bigger the odds and the harder the character fights, the more I love them. I think this is why the Dresden books have done so well--Dresden is thrown on that sword in every book. Multiple swords. Multiple times. I'm still bleeding inside from book 13.

We can study these techniques and use them to torture our own readers. Mwahahaha!

Unknown said...

Wow, this is exactly what I needed right now! I have been working really hard to make sure every element of my character's arc is perfect, but as a highly logical and not very emotional person, I now realize I had almost completely ignored the emotional aspect from the readers' experience. Thanks for posting this! I am eagerly awaiting part two!

Kayla Echols said...

As a reader, I can confirm the 100% truth of how important it is for readers to be emotionally invested in the characters! Just yesterday I gave up on reading the 3rd book in a very popular YA scifi trilogy because I got like 4 chapters in and realized that I didn't actually like any of the "protagonists." But on the other hand, when characters impress me, make me hurt when they hurt, make their desires my desires, then I will follow them through hell in prose form. Rachel, you absolutely nailed that emotional pull with Eli and Julius. Julie Kagawa nailed it with Allison and Zeke in her Blood of Eden trilogy. Caitlyn McFarland nailed it with Kai and Rhys in her Dragonsworn trilogy. People who refuse to read fiction are refusing to live.

Teagan Marie said...

This post is great! I've been watching this anime called Rewrite that's been giving me just enough each episode to keep watching and then BAM! Episode three comes along and emotional investment in one particular character just skyrocketed. I immediately thought of this post after I watched it.

Unknown said...

Wow,great post.

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Rachel it is a really interesting post about writing. You talk very carefully. I have read this post. I want to know more from your blog. I am waiting for your reply.

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