Making an emotional connection

By Joe Moore

While reading the news recently, a story caught my attention: At least 25 dead in Hong Kong ferry collision. Apparently, two vessels collided, killing 25. More than a dozen others were missing. It’s being called one of Hong Kong’s worst maritime accidents.

plugAlmost every day we read or hear about tragedies in the news: earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, fires, mass killings. As human beings, even the most distant, obscure news of fellow humans losing their lives or encountering other tragedies usually draws some emotion, even if it’s fleeting. But unless we’re directly connected with the people in those news stories, our emotional reaction and interest is often shallow at best. The reason is that we know virtually nothing about them. They are just numbers and statistics. If we take the time to read the article, we may see some additional details that make the people involved a little more real. There may be a human interest angle that grabs our attention for a moment or two before we turn the newspaper page or click on the next link. But basically, we don’t care deeply because we have no emotional connection with them.

As writers, when it comes to our readers, if they have little or no emotional connection with the characters in our books, they won’t care what happens to them. And if they don’t care, we’re in trouble.

An emotional connection is created when a reader formulates conclusions about our characters’ personalities based on what we show the characters doing and saying. It’s not good enough for the narrator to “tell” the reader what a brave and generous guy our protagonist is or that our antagonist is a heinous villain. We have to show the reader through the characters’ actions, dialogue, interior thoughts and reasoning, and the way they treat others and their life choices from one situation to the next. Then a connection can start to form.

A solid approach to establishing each of these is to ask: what would you do? How would you react to a situation that you’ve created in your story? It doesn’t matter whether you’re assuming the persona of the protagonist, antagonist, secondary character or a mere walk-on. You are a human and so are they. They should act and react like humans, think like humans, and reason like humans. Only when they do will the reader form the critical bond or connection. Otherwise, all you have is two-dimensional paper-doll cutouts lacking depth and dimension.

Some helpful techniques include using universal experiences. Who has not told a lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? Who hasn’t been faced with deciding between what’s right and what’s easy? Who hasn’t felt animosity or even hate for someone who has wronged you? When your character is in a similar situation, examine how you would react?

If you want your reader to like your character, analyze what it is that makes you like or love someone in real life. Use those emotional traits to build your character. And the opposite is also true. To create a character you want the reader to hate or despise, look for someone you dislike and figure out why. Are they egotistical, self-centered, mettlesome, cold, cruel, or mean? Utilize those universal feelings to build a strong antagonist. But never lose sight of the fact that you’re dealing with humans. Even Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader had strong human characteristics, good and bad.

One universal element that we all can relate to is pain—both physical and mental. Don’t be afraid to dish out the pain when it comes to developing your characters. It’s okay to put pain in their path because it gives them an opportunity to overcome something and by doing so become stronger or wiser or both. Pain, like any other obstacle, is an opportunity for character growth.

The more human you can make your characters, the better chance you’ll have of your readers forming a connection with them. Always consider how you would react, then have your characters act in a similar, logical manner. And throw in a shot of pain once in a while to keep things interesting.

What about you? Think of your most memorable characters, as a writer and/or reader. What made the two of you connect?

21 thoughts on “Making an emotional connection

  1. You hit the nail on the cranium, Joe. A novel is primarily an emotional experience (if it’s any good, that is). And one of the key components is “pain” or “trouble.” Character is revealed in crisis, and it’s what bonds readers to the story.

    A big mistake I see in first chapters of manuscripts is the “Happy People in Happy Land” strategy. Show what happy, wonderful people they are, and the readers will care when the trouble come. Problem: dull, and the readers won’t read on to find the trouble.

    Start with a disturbance. Trouble. Change. Pain. Anything but Norman Rockwell.

  2. Joe –

    As a reader and struggling writer I know that emotional engagement is essential and elusive. I believe it is the hardest thing to achieve as a writer and the most satisfying to experience as a reader. I appreciate the post and JSB’s comments.

    Great examples of engagement at either end of the emotional spectrum for me include 1) James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux – virtue and nobility in a flawed and struggling man 2) Nurse Ratched in Kesey’s “One flew over the Cuckoos Nest – Calculated cruelty in a person cast in a profession of caring and kindness.

    Both are masterfully done and trigger gut level reaction.

    Any and all tips on creating such engagement are appreciated.
    (apologies for using the above examples previously but they are classics IMO)


  3. Long time reader, first time poster. I agree with you Joe, pain and his brother trouble tend to hang out together.

    I find that most characters really jump to life when something is in transition or change. How do they react? What are they prepared to do about this change? These things are what bring characters to life for me as a writer and reader.

  4. Amen Joe. It is crucial that readers connect, that way when you bring serious conflict to your characters they’ll be saying “What? No! Get out of there!” in their heads.

    When they feel the emotions, good or bad, happy or terrified, they feel that they are in the story. And that is the magic of books, and story telling in general, to be sucked in and become a character in the story yourself, even if only in the mind.

    One of the things I strive to do in my own books is build the characters in such a way that the emotionally connected reader will have a difficult time knowing if the memory of the action was what they read in the story, or a real memory of their own.

  5. Great post!
    Reminds me of the old saying, “People may forget what you say or do, but they will never forget how you make them feel.”

  6. Thanks for echoing my sentiments, Jim. To see this in action read VANISHING POINT by Val McDermid.

    TJC, you’re right. It is hard to master the art of emotional connection in writing. The good news is that the more we write, the better we get at it. Good luck with your writing.

    William, thanks for being a longtime visitor to TKZ. Please don’t hesitate to chime in anytime. We want to hear from everyone.

    Basil, your strived-for goal in your writing is a great example of the reaction we all want our readers to have. Thanks for expressing it so well.

    Spot on, RA. Thank you.

  7. Very good comments, Joe. Staying in viewpoint is one way of deepening characterization. New writers tend to head hop or slow the pacing with lengthy flashbacks. Starting with a disturbance, as James said, and moving forward from there showing how the character reacts will draw in the reader. Too often I read passages of dialogue with no emotional response. Keep it real.

  8. Joe. Thanks for another thought provoking post. I echo tjc’s comment: emotional engagement is essential and elusive for a struggling writer.

    Yesterday morning I turned on the TV and learned about the shooting of two Border Patrol officers that left one dead. The location was near Naco, Arizona, a place most people never knew existed. I didn’t know the people involved, but felt an emotional connection nevertheless. The Border Patrol station at Naco is the location of the second scene in my first book. A Mexican Federal police officer is killed and my main charcater is wounded in a shootout across the border. Needless to say, it left me with a strange feeling.

    RA. Looked at your book on Amazon — Great first line. I was billeted with an Armored Cav unit on the East German border back in the days of the Cold War. What really impressed me was their ability to be combat ready, tanks fired up and running, in less than five minutes. It takes a special breed of man to jump into action knowing that you are likely to face overwhelming odds and be among the first casualties in a war. As Jim said, thanks for your service. Good luck with your book.

  9. RG, that is hitting awfully close to home. You have a personal connection through your writing and the terrible news meant something to you. Exactly my point.

    RA, I second everyone here by saying thank you for your service. Best of luck with your book.

  10. Great post and I can identify with it in two words:

    Henry Leyden

    Killed by Stephen King and Peter Straub in Black House, over a decade ago. I can’t remember when I’ve ever been so upset over the death of a fictional character. I asked Peter Straub about it and he laughed and said that is what everyone asks him about. Such a resonate character, quite amazing.


  11. Thanks for the encouragement, everybody. It means a lot. Good luck with your projects as well.

    I just found this blog and am enjoying it very much.

    Jim, thanks for downloading. I hope you enjoy reading it.

    RG, Sorry to hear about the coincidence and hope all goes well for you and your book. Thanks for your service. Here’s a secret about us tankers: We’re glad to start engines anytime in the winter because those tanks have great heaters. Not nearly as motivated in the summer, though.:)

  12. RA, just read your sample, and downloaded the whole book for later. From one military fiction writer to another…good stuff. You connected emotionally with me.

    If you’d like to have it made into an audiobook for drop me a line, I love to do books like this.

    by the way… if any TKZers like, check out the free sample first chapter of my new thriller, MIDNIGHT SUN, and let me know if my aspiriations of emotional connection worked in this one.

  13. Thank you for the great reminder, Mr. Moore. I appreciate the specific examples and prompts you included, so your post is now clipped to Evernote.

    I love The Kill Zone!

  14. Love this post, Joe. Emotion is key to making a personal connection.

    I’m at Bouchercon in Cleveland over the next few days. Met TKZer Joe Hartlaub in person last night & had dinner. What a great guy! Will meet Michelle Gagnon today on our YA panel.

    Now I’m off to check out RA’s book.

  15. Joe, great insight here. This is valuable info as I edit book 2 in reviewing my character arcs to flow with the story arc.

    And what a simple, brilliant tip to follow across your book: universal elements. If we can use these to knock our characters down then we can also use these to bring them back up…and in doing so make the reader care (we hope). Most importantly we as writers have to care about our characters or no one else will.

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