Last night, in a class I’m taking, the instructor talked about how we never know what our art really is until it goes out into the world. The truth of this struck me hard, as I’m in the process right now of watching my second novel embark on its first journey into the world (it came out in early September).
For me, the power in this novel is not really the plot. Instead, it’s the characters. Mainly, it is Mel, the protagonist, who spends the course of the story floundering about, making one bad decision after another, as she attempts to get her life back on track.
She has good reason for going a bit sideways, of course. A few years before the ‘now’ of the book, April into May of 1994, her mother shot and killed both her father and her father’s mistress (don’t worry, I’m not giving anything away).
As you can see, this is a weighty scenario. Grief, trauma, loss are all part of the emotional reality of both Mel and her brother, Matt, and to be honest, just writing it out like this makes me feel tired. If I were in the reader’s shoes, I might think: I’ve got enough tragedy in my own life. Do I really need to read more?
The answer, of course, is no. Not if that’s all there is. Not if the writer - in this case, me - is only asking you to witness the terrible circumstances of these paper dolls marching about on the open pages, one dreadful plot point after the next. Who needs that?
The goal - my goal, hopefully your goal too - is to seduce the reader into caring about these people, into opening their hearts, and responding emotionally themselves. The goal is to create emotional resonance.
Happily, in early reader reports and blurbs for my book (“I fell in love,” said writer Angie Abdou) it seems I might have succeeded.
So, how do we create emotional resonance? Here are a few techniques I’ve learned in my writing (and reading) life.
Writing as a Sensory Experience
“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon,” says E.L. Doctorow.
In other words, show, don’t tell (although we all know there’s a place for telling, right?).
Sometimes beginning writers think that this means to simply describe stuff. The wagon is red and rusty around the edges. The sky is a shimmering blue. He frowned (instead of he looked sad).
But, because fiction is all about people (their challenges, discoveries, yearnings, disappointments, relationships, etcetera), how stuff is described depends entirely on who is doing the seeing. Is it your first person narrator observing the sun on the water and how pretty it looks because she’s in a good mood? Or, in third person limited perspective, is it Edward noticing how much litter is scattered all over the street by stupid people because he’s so angry at his boyfriend?
To practice merging character and description, try this famous exercise by John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction:
Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just died in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death or the old man doing the seeing; then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one.
Get Under the Character’s Skin
Seeing a barn through your character’s eyes requires that you climb right inside that character’s skin. You need to know how they see the world, what has happened to them, who they are.
Some writers do this rigorously, with character development worksheets and the like. I prefer to be surprised. By this I mean, I get to know my characters organically, by spending time with them on the page, writing draft after draft, and putting them into a bunch of different and strange circumstances to see how they’ll respond.
What I like about the way that I work is that my subconscious has a role. It tosses things my way that are surprising and that - usually - work perfectly within the story, progressively educating me as to what exactly it is I’m trying to say (in this way theme grows alongside character).
What it takes is the willingness to enter the work deeply. Like an actor, you have to ‘get into character’ and lose yourself to the writing, as it comes. It requires a kind-of enchantment which can too easily be broken by checking Facebook or monitoring email (hence, my download of the program Freedom which keeps me locked off the Internet when needed).
To practice this, go to your writing spot and free yourself from all distractions. Close your eyes. Put yourself in your character’s bedroom. It’s the middle of the night. She/he/they wakes up. A door has appeared beside the bed. Go through the door. Where does it lead?
Are you plot or character driven? Whichever way you lean, you need heart and emotion in your story if you want readers to deeply engage.
If you’re a writer who maps out careful plot points leading to a climax at the top of the traditional Aristotelian upside-down checkmark, be sure to consider your character’s inner world as well. Factor in their emotional journey. What will they learn by the time they reach the pinnacle? How will they change?
Once you know these things, you can work backwards and test their limits, throw things in the way, raise the emotional stakes by forcing them to wrestle with or confront their inner realities.
If you write by the seat of your pants, allow yourself to get clear not only on what’s happening in the world around your character but how they are emotionally reacting to it as well. What does it remind them of? Does it draw out memories, unresolved issues, regrets, or uncertainties? What themes seem to echo throughout the story? In your next rewrite, how can you more tightly embroider the story threads you want to keep?
Catch Readers By Surprise
Michael Winter, one of my MFA teachers, once advised us to never leave our characters sitting alone with a cup of tea. Instead, stick them in a canoe on their own or with another person, he suggested. In other words: put them into action.
Two things happen when you do this, I’ve since learned. One, if you’re writing into your knowledge of your character, you’ll get to know them in an active way, within the texture of the broader world of your story.
Two, you’ll surprise and thus more deeply engage your reader.
And there is a third: you’ll have more fun.
This isn’t to say, however, that you should just throw your fictional 82-year-old grandma into a canoe because she’s inclined towards having too many cups of tea. Obviously, the action has to be authentic to your character (while not simply choreographed for plot points).
If grandma has her tea everyday, what would happen is she ran out? If she dropped her favourite cup? If her estranged sister showed up? If she tipped a bit too much bourbon into her Earl Grey?
If she insists on sitting there, though, perhaps that is the point. In The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Donald Maass writes, “When your protagonist has no problem other than being stuck, the action of the novel needs to be about getting unstuck.”
Take a look at a dull scene in your current work-in-progress that you know isn’t working. Shake it up by throwing something unexpected into it. What happens?
More from Donald Maass: “Characters are the most interesting when they’re inconvenient. Making them behave that way can be uncomfortable, of course. Writing fiction with emotional effect requires feeling easy with uneasiness.”
In This Has Nothing To Do With You, my main character, Mel, decides to adopt a rescue dog.
She lives in a small apartment, on the eighth floor, that does not allow pets. She works a nine to five job. The dog has a history of abuse that’s left him scarred with serious separation anxiety and deep uneasiness around most men. Like Mel, he’s pretty messed up.
As the writer, the choice for Mel to do this created a whole bunch of hassles. Working around these inconveniences resulted in the arrival of a pivotal character and the appearance of several important plot points. Ultimately, this uncomfortable turn deeply enriched and helped to build the story.
And, perhaps more importantly, this scenario enabled me to write about grief, trauma, loss in a “tell it slant” sort-of way that would more easily invite the sympathy and interest of my audience.
Mel goes on to make mistake after mistake, most triggered by this ludicrous decision made early on in the book. More than one reader has told me they just wanted to reach out and tell her to stop even while they could not put the book down (now, doesn’t that sound like emotional resonance and reader engagement?)
In my final rewrite of the book, I made things worse for Mel. I added more uncomfortable turns to exacerbate her circumstances and lead her to even deeper problems. I didn’t want to, because by then I really cared about her, but I knew that the book would be that much more satisfying if her limits were really stretched.
We all get to know ourselves better when we’re tested by life.
We do things we hardly knew we were capable of. We overcome hardship. We succeed against all odds.
These heightened emotional circumstances resonate through our lives as the times that we remember the most - why shouldn’t it be the same for our characters? Our readers - eager to feel an emotional connection to the people drinking their tea on the page - will thank us for it.
Lauren Carter is the author of four books.
Her new novel, This Has Nothing To Do With You, has been called "an antidote to apathy and despair" (Angie Abdou) and "tender and devastating" (Sarah Selecky).
She teaches and coaches writers from her home near Winnipeg.