Following on from Jim’s great post yesterday on describing characters, I was prompted to think about characters with emotional resonance while reading the great children’s book Wonder by R.J. Palacio. My kids had been urging me to read this book for a while now and as soon as I started reading it I could see why. Absolutely every character (even the mean ones!) in this book resonated with me on a deep emotional level. I think this is the reason many adults enjoy children and YA books – because, when they succeed, they provide a huge emotional wallop that stays with a reader long after they have finished reading.
Few adult books have had the same impact on me in recent years, but I think, as a writer, the issue of emotional resonance when it comes to character development, is a critical one. Almost every book I’ve failed to finish or which has left me disappointed, has failed because I haven’t been able to care enough about the characters. Even in books where the plot has become thin or events have stretched credulity, emotionally deep and resonant characters have kept me reading.
In some ways, the process of providing emotional resonance mirrors the way a writer describes a character because it focuses on the feelings the character inspires in a reader. Those feelings don’t have to always be warm and fluffy, but they do need to strike a chord with a reader. The most powerful characters stay with a reader long after the book is finished.
All too often at writing classes or conferences the pieces that I’ve read or critiqued have had one major failing – the characters themselves. They are often flat on the page, cliched or simply do not ring true. So how do you create emotionally complex, relatable and ultimately resonant characters? Maybe the best starting point is to identify what not to do and work up from there.
Many new writers may feel the urge to create a quirky, one-of-a-kind character or perhaps they hope to create characters similar to those that have proven most popular in their genre (here’s where the recovering alcoholic, down at heel PI often comes into play). In either case, a writer should beware of using standard character tropes and cliches as well as going too far the other way by creating the most ‘out there’ character who sounds nothing like anyone a reader would ever meet in real life. if a character is nothing more that a series of quirks or tics then a reader is going to be just as dissatisfied as if the character is little more than a carbon copy of the stock-standard genre character. The key is (I think) to get into the head and emotions of a character in a way that displays the writer’s own unique perspective. In some ways, perhaps you have to place a little of yourself in each character (maybe not in a literal sense but certainly in an emotional sense).
Striking a chord in readers can be tricky as each reader also brings their own perspective, background, and emotions to the books they are reading. One character’s actions may pack an emotional punch for some readers and yet leave others cold. I find, for example, that parents in books often pack a huge emotional whallop for me, especially in books like Wonder or The Fault in our Stars. If I’d read these books when I was younger, I suspect different characters would have evoked a very different kind of emotional reaction. Yet there are some universal truths out there and characters that evoke strong emotions will go on to have wider resonance.
It’s hard to provide any kind of definitive ‘tip list’ for creating this kind of emotional resonance, simply because it is an illusive target (we only know it when we feel in the gut) but I think some of the elements include:
- Going deep within a character’s psyche to understand their motivations;
- Drawing upon your own past experiences and interactions to add depth;
- Using action as well as interaction to draw out a character rather than description alone (this helps readers experience a character rather than just reading about them in a static sense);
- Finding the humanity within all the characters (even your villains);
- Exploring the inhumanity within all your characters (we all have weaknesses and foibles, prejudices and flaws that make us who we are – even if we’re not proud of them);
- Looking for the universality of experience that strikes a chord in you the writer as you describe your characters and take them on their unique journey through your book;
- Avoiding thinking or describing characters in terms of what they should be but rather what they are – try to step back from relying on conventions or mimicking other writer’s characters and remember no one is superhuman or a psychopath in their own mind.
These are just a few ways I think writers can start to inhabit their characters to provide a level of feeling that will hopefully resonate in readers. What tips do you have?