Part of my plan for 2019 is to write a series of blog posts that pull back the curtain on some of my thoughts and methods for writing. So many readers I talk to are curious about what goes on behind the scenes in the creation of their favorite books. I’ve also been approached by writers looking for different ideas for their craft. I hope sharing my process is illuminating for readers and writers alike!
This month, I’m going to focus on the foundation of most narratives—the characters.
Characters are the driving force behind every story. Without them, there’s really not much going on. They don’t necessarily have to be likeable, but we have to be able to sympathize with them. “That guy is making terrible choices, but after being inside their head for a while, I understand why they act the way they do.” If I can’t relate to the characters I’m reading or writing about, it’s pretty much impossible for me to get into a book.
As a writer, I want to establish sympathy as early as possible, because sympathy often leads to readers caring about a character, and caring is key for building a story that draws people in. If readers don’t care about anyone in the book, they’re not likely to want to finish it, let alone read anything else in the series.
The best way to establish sympathy—to get readers to start caring about what happens to a character—is by putting the character in a situation and showing the characters having an emotional reaction to it and making choices that readers can relate to. You don’t have to agree with the character’s choices, just understand where they’re coming from.
In the very first paragraph of Gray Card, readers learn that Evelyn wants to take her friendship with her best friend, Adam, to the next level (the “friends to lovers” trope—we’ll be talking about tropes later in the year 🙂 ). We then see that she feels he’s way out of her league, but plans to try to make the move anyway. She ends up putting her plans on hold when she sees that Adam is dealing with a problem of his own, deciding to put her own desires on the back-burner so that she can support him as a friend.
I don’t know about you, but I admire that kind of courage and self-sacrifice. I can totally relate to wanting to reach for something you really want, even though it might mean you lose what you have, as well as waiting to make that jump so that you can help someone you care about.
Much of the time, my characters just come out sympathetic (to me, anyway 🙂 ). I prefer to write likeable characters, which I think makes it easier. I still check in during edits to make sure I’ve shown my readers why they can sympathize with the characters, too, and to be sure I’ve done this early enough in the story.
Wandering Soul was my first contracted piece. I absolutely adore this book, this world, and all the characters who live in the Summer Park Psychics series. I’m so happy when I see the wonderful reviews the series has received. Several years, over half a million written and edited words, and sixteen published works later, I think I could make this book even better 🙂 In Wandering Soul specifically, I’d like to strengthen how I established sympathy.
Elsa is a psychic who can astral project through time and space. She’s learned that she can even bring people and animals back with her, given the right circumstances (but not without a cost). After she falls in love with Dante while observing him, she decides to save his life and risk bringing him to her time.
Throughout the book, we see that she is absolutely terrified of anyone finding out about her powers, but I didn’t explain why until near the very end of the story. She would be much more sympathetic if I shared the experiences that made her the way she is earlier on in the book. The bedrock of sympathy is showing readers where a character is coming from. Even if we would make different choices, we can still understand why the character makes theirs. If I go back to revise this book, that will be the number one reason I do so.
While establishing sympathy, writers need to be careful about setting readers’ expectations. Wandering Soul also taught me to make sure to match the tone of the rest of the story when building sympathy.
In the very first chapter, I set up Dante as a sympathetic character by having him run back into a burning building he’s just escaped from (while helping to save someone he cares about) to try to save people who tormented him horribly. He is that kind of guy <3
I love this scene, and have no plans to change it, but I have learned that if the rest of the book is more low-key in terms of action, it’s probably best not to have your first chapter be so thrilling 🙂
I applied these lessons to one of my more recent novels, Forbidden Instinct. Miranda can see the future (psychics are one of my favorite tropes to write <3 ). I wanted readers to sympathize with her from the start, and knew that this book would have a ton of action (including an epic fight scene between a vampire and a werewolf that is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written).
In the first chapter, we see Miranda risking her life and sacrificing her car—which is one of the last physical connections she has to her dead mother—in order to prevent a vision where she’s seen a family die in a car crash. We see her struggle, her fear, and her resolution. Most importantly, we see why she makes her choices, and can understand her motivation. If I’ve done my job right, readers will be so invested in seeing how she deals with the consequences of her choice (being injured, not having a car or the funds to buy a new one), that they’ll keep on reading the book, and even the rest of the series (the next book is in the works! <3 ).
We also get to meet her love interest, Darren, in that chapter. And, of course, he’s introduced by showing him making a choice that sets him up as a sympathetic character—risking his life for someone he thinks is a stranger, but turns out to be Miranda 😀
Much of crafting stories becomes instinctual over time. I find that going back to make sure I’ve hit the right notes, and paying attention to the elements of a great story when making my own choices of what to share, when, and how, makes for the best stories I can create.
Thinking of some of your favorite books, how did the author establish the characters as being sympathetic? Can you pinpoint the first moment when you felt an understanding for a particular character? Tell me about it in the comments below!
Want to read about my early writing epiphanies? They’re gathered in my writer’s resource book, Crafting a Writer’s Life: Building a Foundation.