Have you ever read a book that made you cry? Or laugh? Or maybe even throw it across the room in frustration because you can’t just can’t believe the character or situation?
Often, our favorite books make us do all three, because those books forge an emotional connection with us, the reader. As a writer, there are a lot of goals when writing a book: tell a good story, write it well, and make your readers care about your characters or situations.
That third one is hard to do. What is it that makes a reader care about the characters or situations in a particular story?
I think there are several factors that can play into making a reader care about your story. Here are a few things that I believe make readers form emotional connections and become deeply invested in your characters and story.
Make your characters real.
As a writer, it’s hard to make your characters resemble real, flesh and blood human beings. I have a tendency to want to make my characters perfect, but let’s be fair, who wants to read a story about a perfect person (unless, of course, that person is Jesus!)? Boring! Julie Lessman’s Daughters of Boston series contains a character that, quite frankly, when I first read the series, I couldn’t stand: Charity O’Connor. Beautiful, spoiled, and scheming, Charity steals the man her sister loves, then deliberately sabotages her sister’s happiness with a new beau, purely out of spite. As the series progresses, Lessman reveals reasons behinds Charity’s awful behavior, and eventually redeems her, showing that God loves all of us, but I’ll be honest, there were still times I literally wanted to slap her!
But that’s good! Because as a writer, Lessman’s Charity got under my skin because she was imperfect.
Find an issue or subject that will elicit strong feelings.
I’m not talking about the Holocaust, or politics, or anything like, although those can make great stories, too. Issues like injustice and compassion can bring strong feelings to the surface. I recently read Dawn Ford’s Knee-High Lies, and her main character, Avery, is continually and cruelly taunted by a classmate, the girl spreading lies about Avery, calling her names, defacing her property, and turning friends against her. I can’t tell you how much the injustice of Avery’s situation burned me up! I kept telling my husband, “I can’t believe teenage girls would be so mean!” I realized that this bothered me so much because I’ve always hated seeing people excluded, and I hate saying anything hurtful or mean to anyone. Dawn really made me feel a sympathy for all that Avery endured, and care what happened to her.
On a more positive note, Tamera Alexander’s A Note Yet Unsung elicited a different kind of emotion in me. While it was a beautiful love story, Alexander did a phenomenal job describing the joy and beauty of music. At one point, the young conductor in the story is faced with the tragedy of possibly losing his hearing, meaning an end to his career, but more importantly, to his enjoyment of music. There was a particular scene that brought me to tears as Alexander described the beauty of music, and as a person whose current career is promoting music, it struck a deep chord.
Put some tragedy in your character’s life.
While similar to making your character imperfect, this one means giving your character a back story that isn’t all sunshine and happiness. Anne Shirley is an orphan, tossed around from family to family until she’s adopted by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. In Lisa T. Bergen’s River of Time series, the Betarrini sisters’ father dies before the story began, making them familiar with the uncertainty of life and death in the 13th century to which they accidentally travel. In my symphony mystery novel, my main character was once a rising classical music star until a tragic accident cut her cello career short. What person in real life hasn’t faced potential tragedy or hardship? Giving your character some tragedy will not only elicit empathy from readers, but will also show them your character’s moxie and gumption to overcome.
So, what are some things you use to make readers forge an emotional connection with your story?