Recently I read a sequel with a male lead whose inner struggles nearly cost him everything—his love, his job, his child—and I cried at no less than three points in the story. As he pulled himself back from the edge and turned his life around, I wondered what about this character and his story prompted such a visceral reaction from me.
The easy answer is the fact that it’s a sequel, I loved the first book, and I’d anxiously awaited the second. But that’s not quite the whole picture. Because I’ve read plenty of books—and their sequels—and they don’t all pull an emotional reaction from me. But the ones that do… well, they have a few things in common.
So, as an author, what can you do to pull this reaction from your reader?
First of all, give the reader a character they can care about. Not a perfect Mary Sue, but a real person. Give your characters flaws; it makes them more believable, more human. Readers are more likely to react to a character they can relate to, whether in a good situation or a bad. Give your character layers and depth. And moods. We all have them. The more real you make her, the easier it will be for your reader to connect.
Conversely, give your reader someone they can loathe. But remember that villains have layers, too. No bad guy is 100% bad all the time. Some of the very best villains of all time have a not-so-bad side.
In your story line, create realistic situations, but don’t be too careful or cautious. In life, good things AND bad things naturally happen. Babies are born. People die. In your story, good and bad should both occur. Characters are born. Characters die. Yes, I said it. Kill someone off. Don’t be afraid. One of the best things about writing is the godlike aspect it brings the author. You can always reincarnate that character, or aspects of that character, in a future story. Or—dun, dun, dun—bring him back as his evil twin! Ha, kidding. No, really. Don’t.
In addition to the story line you create for them, also force your characters to actually be human beings and live. Wives get promoted. Fathers lose their jobs. Kids choose to use drugs. An alcoholic takes her first step into an AA meeting. People have to make life or death decisions and hard choices, which create conflict. And without conflict, there can be no resolution.
Don’t forget to foreshadow, foreshadow, foreshadow. For any emotional reaction—good, bad, or something in between—anticipation is imperative. It could be the slow burn of sexual tension or a sick feeling of dread that builds until the reader is begging for it to end. Whether it’s subtle or blatant, use foreshadowing to your advantage.
But then don’t be afraid to throw a curve ball. Depending on the curve, that can rank right up there with “kill off your character.” Nothing brings out a reaction from the reader like a curve ball. Often the reaction is something akin to “tosses book across the room” or “how could she kill off Sam?” Sometimes it’s more positive, like “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” And that’s when you know you did it right.
And while you’re doing all that, craft scenes that show the emotion you’re trying to summon from your reader. This is where all that “show, don’t tell” stuff your editor has been yammering about comes into play. Choose your words carefully and for maximum effect. Paint a picture of the grief your leading lady is feeling. Choreograph a dance of joy for your happy couple. Pen a song that expresses your protagonist’s frustration and angst.
Humans are pretty complicated beings. We don’t feel one simple emotion at any given moment—we usually have a bunch of feelings swirling around us at any given time. So mix things up. Add some bittersweet to your joy, some humor to your anxiety, some anger to your sorrow. Conflicting emotions create… well, conflict. And conflict increases the emotional connection and reaction for your reader.
Once you’ve made your characters work for it, assuming you’re writing romance, give them their happily ever after. And that means something different to every author. For some, it’s an engagement or a wedding, for others, it’s a family. For some it can be the suggestion of the happy ending the reader is left to write herself. But when your real character struggles and overcomes true conflict to reach that happily ever after, it packs more of a punch.
What do you think? What draws an emotional reaction from you? I’d love to hear from you.