Think hard, readers.
What’s the most important part to any story?
Plot? Nope. Characters? Nope. Characters and plot are important, but you’ve probably read crappy books that had both of these things and still sucked major monkey dung.
Setting? Descriptions? We notice when these are missing or abused to kingdom come, but a story can still (to an extent) live with the setting not being so prominent if characters and plot are strong enough.
Theme? Nope, not even close.
Change? Getting close, but also getting way too vague.
Think of your favorite book. The one that you kept you up late at night. Or the one that made you want to fling the darn thing across the room because you want the MC and their best friend to stop fighting and kiss for fuck sake because their love for each other is so obvious that they both deserve to be hit over the head with something blunt, hard, and sandpapery.
Books like that engage our emotions.
Emotions are what keep us glued to our favorite books and keep us awake at night reading when we know damn well that we need to get up early tomorrow for work commute, exams, doctor’s appointment, or what have you. They are what separates stories from desert-dry instruction manuals.
A good example of this is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Now don’t worry, I’m going to try not to spoil anything for you. But if you want a lesson in heavy emotions, there you go. Though, do make sure you read the other books first! No skipping. 😛
The only way I can describe Order of the Phoenix is that reading it was much like being tossed into a skillet. And as you read on, that skillet gets covered, then the heat goes up a little, then a little more, until suddenly the fire is at max and there feels like there’s no way out and everyone inside is being burned alive.
Very lovely, isn’t it?
Order of the Phoenix is the first book that made me feel bad for Harry because he didn’t really do much to deserve the crap he caught from authority, (except for his temper spills). You can literally feel his suffering throughout the whole book. It’s terrible. Terrible for Harry, I mean. The book is amazeballs. And the power to engage a reader’s emotions so strongly is nothing to scoff at.
This is what addicts us to our favorite author’s writing.
But how do we do make our writing emotionally strong?
It makes diamonds, it boils eggs, and it makes the perfect batch of rice to boot. Add it to your characters and it forces them to make tough (and sometimes not well-thought out choices).
If your characters never feel any pressure to act, they’ll never feel any need to do anything. And if your character can continually do nothing with no consequences, then what’s the point of reading?
On the other hand, if your characters keep acting but without any pressure, then the story just becomes a bunch of characters forcing themselves through motions that have no significance.
2.) Internal Beliefs
As much as humans like to believe that we are the most logical and reasonable creatures on the planet, that actually isn’t true. We fall prey to our emotions, biases, and insecurities far more often than we do the right thing.
Think about it. You resolve to stick to a diet, do it for a few days and then you’re tempted by that sexy chocolate cake your spouse brings in from work and then you cave because you might think one more cake won’t change a thing.
You resolve to get in shape, buy a gym membership, but then don’t go because maybe you’re self-conscious.
You tell yourself that you’re going to finally write that book, dabble in a few words here and there, and then stop because you think no one will want to read it.
A character’s internal beliefs are like a control center for causing chaos and mayhem in their emotional lives. They aren’t the least bit rational, but they are partly responsible why we don’t do the things we know that we should.
And the best thing about internal beliefs is that most of the time we don’t know that we have them until they’re pointed out to us by someone else or until another situation forces us to confront them.
Flaws are another culprit of causing characters to do things that they know fully-well that they shouldn’t. Flaws are also the thing that give a story the friction that mere plot events aren’t capable of.
But unfortunately, flaws tend to be either underused in main characters, or abused too much in villains. I’ll concede sometimes, it’s a tough balance. But where it becomes a problem is when characters are polarized too far to one side or another.
I’ve read a fantasy novel recently where there were two main characters. One girl who was a perfectionist and a boy whose only flaw I could identify was that he was poor which isn’t a real personality flaw. Or maybe it was meant to be interpreted as not having self-confidence, but the self-confidence part didn’t actually show through.
Medical conditions, physical attributes, socio-economic statues and any external part of your character is not a flaw. They are a “disadvantage”. And many disadvantages can be worked around, though some understandably can’t.
Flaws are things like being selfish, possessive, greedy, stingy, or arrogant. They’re frowned upon and also deeply rooted in our egos, shadows of their more positive counterparts. That might be worth another post somewhere down the line, but for now stick to thinking of flaws as cast shadows to positive counterparts.
Now the other issue, is when people make a villain and dump everything bad into their soul because heaven forbid the good characters have a blemish on them. Don’t forget that in order to cast a shadow you need to have a strong enough light.
4.) The Emotions Themselves
Let the reader experience the emotions along with your characters. Preferably without the name of the emotions involved. If another character is in the scene, don’t tell me that they are angry, especially if they’re being seen through another POV character! Show how red their ears get, her clenched fists, the spinach caught in his bare-toothed scowl.
People aren’t necessarily the best judges of their own character, so unless they have perfect mind reading powers and even more perfect mind interpreting powers, it’s unlikely that they can pinpoint a person’s mood correctly. Not to mention that different cultures might interpret gestures differently!
But more importantly, when a character doesn’t react to something huge that warrants an emotional reaction, a reader is going to feel like they’ve been in the skin of a piece of cardboard, so emotions are worth getting right.
If you have trouble with writing emotions, try paying attention to your body when you feel your different emotions. You’ll probably find that your heart rate goes up. Your pulse might feel more palpable. Body temperature soars or plummets.
You get my drift?
No? Great! 😀 Just kidding.
Seriously though, emotions really are the bread and butter that make or break good books. You definitely don’t want to skimp in this area.
But enough from me, it is late here and there is pie to be had!
See you all next time!