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Characters and Commitment

Being a writer is about all kinds of things -rules about subject/verb agreement, punctuation, grammar, spelling- which you did actually absorb during school but perhaps didn’t assign much importance to. More importantly, though, it’s about how you feel about your own work. When you begin to really feel that what you have to say is actually worth something, all else will follow. And that’s the foundation upon which great masterpieces are built, believe it or not.

Having a sense of worth in your own work is one of the things which underpins success as a fiction writer. You can hardly expect to produce an emotional effect if you can’t feel it yourself. However, even if you really feel what you’re writing, you can miss the mark in creating that feeling for your readers.

So how do you get an emotional commitment from your readers?

The first thing is not to do what you’re probably (if you’re like hundreds of thousands of other writers) tempted to do: get over-emotional with your language and style.

Here’s a tip:

The best way of creating an emotional effect is to avoid emotionalism.

Even when you passionately want to convey a feeling, avoid getting ‘emotional’ in your expression. Avoid seeming angry, or overly passionate. Keep calm and remain aloof; adopt the viewpoint of a dispassionate observer.

Why does this work?

Writers have two main effects on readers: they are hypnotically ‘drawn in’ by their own desire to find something out, or they are repelled and feel they have to see through a ‘fog’ of unnecessary emotion. A dispassionate author who simply lays out the scene and invites the reader to add feelinngs actually heightens the emotional effect.

Ernest Hemingway was a master at this -his novels are apparently so dry, so free of outward emotional entanglement or linguistic emotional techniques, yet he is hailed as a major influence on writing in the twentieth century because his writing ends up conveying such powerful feelings.

But apart from not being overtly emotional, what are the main tools for transmitting emotion to your readers?

The main tools are perhaps obvious, but the extent to which their usefulness is really known is limited to only the great authors or writers who know this secret:

The primary communicators of human emotion are carefully-crafted characters.

A book or a story are attention-capturing devices, and the main mechanism in them that is used for capturing attention is the thing called a character. Well-crafted characters are one of your chief instruments for vastly improving your writing. But they are not crafted in the way you might have been traditionally taught.

Choose one of your characters -it doesn’t have to be the lead character at all- and write down some relevant facts about him or her. Where did the character grow up? Did he or she go to university? Any favourite pursuits? What is his or her greatest fear or love? That’s the way you’ve probably been taught to ‘esign’ a character. Of these questions, the only one of real importance if the last:

What is his or her greatest fear or love?

While the traditional approach can result in something resembling, on paper, an actual living being, in practice the thing that makes this ‘person’ come to life on the page is the answer to that question about fears and desires.

Characters with definite fears and desires virtually write their own story

You might expect that once a character is fleshed out, a story virtually writes itself. But all the details about his orher hometown, education, hobbies, really means very little. Work done on character fears and needs will create individuals who demand that their story be told, regardless of what plot you might originally have had in mind.

Interestingly, almost without exception, the story a character full of fears and cravings insists on telling will be better than the one you thought up on your own.

The aim is to hold onto your readers through characters that are so real that they demand to be heard. Your characters are your ‘glue’.

Characters with urgent, growing or desperate needs will compel readers to turn the pages of a novel or short story to find out what happens to them.

Staying true to the character you've developed becomes then a matter of listening to the character’s needs rather than having to consciously invent things about him or her. Even if the individual you’ve spawned is utterly revolting morally, a voice will become apparent to you -and quite often it’s the villain of the piece who most captivates the reader.

Any character, no matter how convincing, has to be placed in situations which test or reveal things about him or her. But characters who are full of need actually motivate themselves. A truly suspenseful book, short story or other literary work is very like a piece of theatre, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats until the end; a suspense-filled epic should hold the reader until the final word.

The primary generator of suspense in a story is a character whose desires or needs run deep.


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