Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Bring Your Characters to Life by Showing Their Reactions

by Jodie Renner, editor & author 

A novel won’t draw me in unless I start caring about the protagonist and worrying about what’s going to happen to her – in other words, until I get emotionally engaged in the story. And it’s the same for most readers, I think. For me to warm up to the protagonist, he has to have some warmth and vulnerability and determination, some hopes and insecurities and fears.

As readers, to identify with and bond with the protagonist – and other characters – we need to see and feel their emotions and reactions to people and events around them. When the character feels and reacts, then they come alive for us and we get emotionally invested and start to worry about them and cheer for their small victories. Once you have your readers fretting about your hero and rooting for him, they’re hooked.

As the late, great Jack M. Bickham said, “Fiction characters who only think are dead. It is in their feelings that the readers will understand them, sympathize with them, and care about their plight.”

Show those feelings.

So bring your characters to life by showing their deepest fears, worries, frustrations, hopes and jubilations. If readers see your hero pumped, scared, angry, or worried, they’ll feel that way, too. And a reader who is feeling strong emotions is a reader who is turning the pages.

And engage the readers’ senses, too, so they feel like they’re right there, by showing us not only what the character is seeing, but what they’re hearing, smelling, touching, sensing, and even tasting.

Show their physical reactions, too.

Besides showing us your character’s emotional reactions, show their physical reactions as well to what’s happening to them.

Show the stimulus before the response, and show the reactions in their natural order.

To avoid reader confusion and annoyance, be sure to state the cause before the effect, the stimulus before the response, the action before the reaction.

And to mirror reality, it’s important to show your character’s visceral reaction to a situation first, before an overt action or words. And show involuntary thought-reactions or word-reactions, like a quick “ouch” or swear word, before more reasoned thought processes and decision-making.

As Ingermanson & Economy put it, “Here’s a simple rule to use: Show first whatever happens fastest. Most often, this means you show interior emotion first, followed by various instinctive actions or dialogue, followed by the more rational kinds of action, dialogue, and interior monologue.”

And don’t skip those first steps! Remember, we’re inside that character’s head and body, so you deepen their character and draw us closer to them by showing us what they’re feeling immediately inside – those involuntary physical and thought reactions that come before controlled, civilized outward reactions.

As Bickham points out, it’s important to imitate reality by showing the reactions in the order they occur. You may not show all of these reactions, but whichever ones you choose, show them in this order.

First, show the stimulus that has caused them to react.  

Then show some or all of these responses, in this order:

1. The character’s visceral response
– adrenaline surging, pulse racing, stomach clenching, heart pounding, mouth drying, flushing, shivering, cold skin, tense muscles, sweating, blushing, shakiness, etc.

2. Their unconscious knee-jerk physical action – yelling, gasping, crying out, snatching hand or foot away from source of heat or pain, striking out, etc.

3. Their thought processes and decision to act

4. Their conscious action or verbal response

Showing your characters’ feelings and responses will bring them to life on the page for the readers and suck readers deeper into your story world, your fictive dream.

But don’t go overboard with it — you don’t want your protagonist to come across as gushing or hysterical or neurotic. It’s important to strike a balance so the readers want to relate to and empathize with your main character, not get annoyed or disgusted with her and quit reading.

So how do we strike that balance? How do we as writers find the emotions to bring our characters to life, but also find a happy medium between flat, emotionless characters that bore us and hysterical drama queens or raging bulls that make us cringe?

Bickham advises us to consider how we’ve felt in similar circumstances, then overwrite first, and revise down later. “I would much prefer to see you write too much of feeling in your first draft; you can always tone it down a bit later…. On the other hand, a sterile, chill, emotionless story, filled with robot people, will never be accepted by any reader.”

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION,  CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers  Website:; Facebook. Amazon Author Page.

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