Thursday, November 17, 2011

Make Them Care

On Monday, Claire had a terrific post about giving your characters convictions. Because readers connect with characters who have them.

I totally agree with this, yet Claire's post got me thinking -as all good posts are wont to do- about the writer's role in all of this. Now, there is a popular belief that the writer should be totally absent from the narration. In other words, no interference should come from the writer. I don't believe this. Yes, we tell our stories through the characters, and the deeper a writer goes into that character's point of view, the better the portrayal will be. However, the writer is the one controlling the show. We plot, and we use our crafting skills to tell the story.

So then, when we give a character a goal, a dream, or convictions, we need to manipulate certain things so that the reader cares deeply, and is invested in seeing the character reach these goals.

Because in good, lasting stories, there definitely is writer manipulation going on.

Let's take The Wizard of Oz for example. Before I go on, I'll admit here that I've read the book and watched the film, and I tend to like the movie better, only because it was the first experience I had with the story. Hate me if you must. :)

Anyway, you have Dorothy who has been whisked out of dry, gray Kansas and into the colorful world of OZ, and all she wants to do is get home.

Here's the thing, the reader has seen her dull, boring life in Kansas. What's to say that Dorothy isn't really better off just staying in colorful OZ where she has friends? Where she can rule by their side? Why is Kansas better?

Because of her family. Because of Aunt Em.

Dorothy wants to get back to them. But that wouldn't be enough if the author hadn't done a bit of slight of hand with this idea. What he does is this: he shows us a few key pieces of information. One, he shows Aunt Em and Uncle Henry sticking up for Dorothy when good old Toto is threatened. Then he shows their terror when they can't find Dorothy during the tornado. Finally, we see poor Aunt Em calling for Dorothy in the crystal ball.

So then, it isn't just about Dorothy and what she wants. It is about her family as well. The reader knows how devastated her family will be if she doesn't return, and how much she is loved in her own home. Thus we want her to achieve her goals just as much as she wants them.

This is the key. The writer must show, from various angles and points of view (if they can), why it is important for the hero to get his heart's desire, or succeed in his quest.

In genre stories, there is a certain element of expectation that can lead a writer to be lazy. IOW, we expect the hero and heroine to get together in a romance, so we don't need to work so hard in explaining why they need to be together. Wrong. That is the whole point of the romance. Show the reader why these two characters are better together than apart.

We need to know why a villain must be stopped in a thriller or mystery too. It isn't enough just to think, because he is evil. The reader must be as desperate to see the villain get his as the hero is.

And that is where we, the writers, come along with our nice little bag of tricks.

But truly, it is imperative in any story. Motivation, but the hero's AND the plot's, it what keeps us reading.

So keep this in mind when you are crafting your story. Be prepared to tug at your reader's emotional heart strings here and there -and not just from your heroine's perceptive, but throughout the entire story. Make it clear why she needs to win. Why we need her to win.


  1. Facebook link has nothing to so with this post. :)

    And I totally agree!

  2. So true! And such a good example, because have you seen Wicked? I was so reluctant to go to it- not a lover of musical stage shows- but my husband was all forlorn at missing out, so in the end I took him to the very last show for Father's Day. And wow, I was blown away by just how well they achieved everything you've described here- every background character from The Wizard of Oz came to life in a completely different way, and I'm not ashamed to say that I bawled my eyes out in multiple places (ahem- pregnancy hormones, of course).

    All of it deliberately and cleverly engineered, which is why these days, when someone says they're just letting the story write itself, I recommend caution. Once upon a time, I probably thought that was possible too. But above the instinctive storytelling, there has to be deliberate intent by the author.

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  4. This is a great observation. I do believe certain stories are more character driven or plot driven, but the best narratives certainly employ the best of both worlds. The best stories are carefully planned and well executed. They're worth rereading to understand all the angles and the only way to do that is make the reader care. Well said.

  5. Oh my yes. I saved your post in my "think about this" pile, right next to the Jo stuff [g]