Write for the Jugular

Can You Believe This? Your Characters’ Reactions

How many times have you saved the world in the last possible second, after running through the streets of Manhattan one step ahead of the fully engaged U.S. Secret Service?

I haven’t done that in at least a couple weeks now, but I know how I would feel if the entire government was after me for a crime I didn’t commit. I’d feel like running home to mommy and hiding under my bed.

Now re-read what I just wrote and consider which of the two ideas you most relate to — the flight from misguided (and probably fatal) federal justice or the feeling of being regressed to baby talk under your binky.

Odds are, you’ve never been a federal fugitive on the wanted end of a 24-hour manhunt, but you have been afraid. You’ve been mugged; you’ve been pulled over by the police; you’ve been caught cheating on a test.

We all know fear the same way we all know joy and love and regret and hope. They’re all emotions and they, more than most of us like to admit, carry us through our days.

In fiction, emotions carry us through the story. You’ve heard of suspension of disbelief, yes? Well, the reason we’re able to suspend disbelief is because we relate to the characters — NOT the action and NOT the character’s job or training. Every main character in fiction has a better job than you and me. What propels a reader through a story, the reason people say, “Boy, that was a good story!” is how well we relate to the hero (or heroine).

Character relation is best achieved through emotion. What makes us sit through a movie like Face/Off is not because it’s believable (because it isn’t), it’s because we empathize with the good guy’s emotions. He’s hurt and angry and wants to bring down the guy who killed his son. And he is, under all his flaws, so upstanding and moral that he puts his entire life on the line to keep the bad guy from winning. Part of him is something we relate to (a sense of outrage and justice and revenge) and part of him is something we want to relate to (his unswerving ethics and his ability to keep going in the face of overwhelming adversity).

Returning to books, ask yourself — did you stick with The Da Vinci Code because of the potboiler plot? No, you stuck with it because you felt the excitement the characters felt, the fear the characters felt, the loneliness and despair the characters felt while going through the plot. Their journey was entertaining and enlightening, but you rooted for Robert and feared the Monk. You felt what they felt as the situation spiraled out of control.

This stuff holds true for quieter, more dramatic stuff too. Romance novels usually don’t have a lot of high-octane action and adventure, they’re built on the emotional tension between the heroine and the guy she’s going to end up with. Similar to something like Jurassic Park, in that you’re unlikely to run afoul of an island full of dinosaurs, you’re probably not pressing your heaving bosom against m’lord’s ample, quivering lance on a dark and stormy night along the moors while the king sleeps one room over. What holds you in a romance novel is how the heroine reacts to her unlikely situation, because if we were ever in a similar situation we would react — or, as importantly, we would like to react — the same way.

The moral of this story? Make sure that no matter how outlandish the story is, your characters must react like real people. It’s OK for them to be scared, to make mistakes, and to have bad aim. It’s OK for them to give into temptation, to take the money, and to fall in love. Because we would want to do that too.

Visit me at www.write-hook.com

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