Show Your Characters’ Reactions to Bring Them Alive

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, & speaker

A novel won’t draw me in unless I start caring jodie-renner1-Small5about 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.”

Do you have any techniques that work for bringing out your characters’ reactions and feelings? And for ensuring that you don’t go off the deep end with it?[Writing-a-Killer-Thriller_May-13_120%255B2%255D.jpg]

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: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, 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. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook and Twitter.

Cardboard men and the women who love them

Men characters…can’t control ’em and can’t shoot ’em.
Actually, I guess I could do the latter. And that is just about where I am right now with one of the guys in my work in progress. His name is Josh. Or sometimes Matt. Before that his name was Alex. The fact that I can’t even settle on a name for this guy shows you where I am with him right now. He’s the husband of my heroine and while SHE doesn’t really need him — in fact, that’s part of her character arc — I do need him. He’s important to the plot.
It’s my fault. I gave birth to this creep. I can’t even blame my co-author sister Kelly because when we plotted this book out, I was the one who drew duty on Josh. I put him on paper, I got him up and walking around. So now I have to find a way to deal with him. I thought I was doing okay with him until I ran his introductory chapter past my critique group. They tore Josh to shreds. 
Josh, it seems, is a cipher. In creating him, I committed one of the biggest sins of writing, something I preach about to every new writer I encounter. Namely:
Your villain must not stupid, dull, or incompetent. He must be a worthy opponent for your hero.
Wait, you say, Josh is the villain? I thought he was the husband. (Actually, he might be the villain; I haven’t really decided).  Regardless, the same commandment applies to love interests as well as villains. If you expect readers to buy into a romantic relationship, the man you pick for your woman must be worthy of her affection.
Josh, alas, is made of cardboard. He’s not the sexy UPS man. He’s the UPS box.
I haven’t taken the time or energy to flesh him out. I neglected to give their relationship enough back story to make it believable. I didn’t give enough thought to his motivations. I have been so busy lavishing love and words on my heroine, the cast of fabulous secondary characters — shoot, even the frickin’ scenery — that I just plain forgot about flaccid Josh.
I know why this happened, though I hate to admit it.
This book is not a Louis Kincaid book, so I can’t depend on my deep “friendships” with old characters. I don’t know these new characters yet so it’s harder to plumb their depths. This book is also not a strict thriller like we have written before. It’s closer to psychological suspense, which for me at least requires some stretching. It is still dark in tone as our other books but it is more dependent on relationships and all the shadows, ambiguities and difficulties that presents. 
I think when writing Josh I had flashbacks to my romance writing days, when relationships were the backbone of my stories. There wasn’t the convenient conveyance of violence or an unsolved case to propel the plot forward; you had to build suspense solely through how the characters related to each other. Plus there’s the sex thing. In romance, if you didn’t have sex every four chapters or so there was something wrong with you. But that was a long time ago. I haven’t had to have sex since…well, never mind.
Friends, I am here to tell you. It is not just like riding a bicycle.
The lesson here is: Pay attention to every character and don’t take shortcuts. Go deep and then even deeper when you think about their motivations. I didn’t do my job as a writer with Josh the first time around. I thought I could get away with giving him less than my best. So now, here I am, struggling with rewrites way too early in the first draft. 
This is not a good place to be because first drafts, as I have said often, should be just that — drafts. If you stop and go back for intensive surgery too early in your book’s life you lose your forward momentum. But I have no choice because I know the rest of the book will not fall into place the way it needs to until I go back and fix Josh. So today I will transfuse Josh with some blood, jolt him with the heart paddles, and try to make him come alive on the page.

I should have killed him off in chapter 4. It would have been easier.

Let Your Characters Live and Breathe

Among my books on writing is a 1919 title, A Manual of the Art of Fiction, by one Clayton Meeker Hamilton, a professor at Columbia University. It’s a bit academic, but I’ve found some gems in it. Among them is the following. In his chapter on characterization, Hamilton states:

The careless reader of fiction usually supposes that, since the novelist invents his characters and incidents, he can order them always to suit his own desires: but any honest artist will tell you that his characters often grow intractable and stubbornly refuse at certain points to accept the incidents which he has foreordained for them, and that at other times they take matters into their own hands and run away with the story. Stevenson has recorded this latter experience. He said, apropos of Kidnapped, “In one of my books, and in one only, the characters took the bit in their teeth; all at once, they became detached from the flat paper, they turned their backs on me and walked off bodily; and from that time my task was stenographic––it was they who spoke, it was they who wrote the remainder of the story.”

Has that ever happened to you? I suspect it has. It’s one of the most pleasurable aspects of writing (though a little daunting if you’re a dedicated outliner).
So what should you do when a character starts making a few moves of his own?
1. Listen
As Madeleine L’Engle once put it, “If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it; the book is usually right.”
Take a breath and just let the turn of events soak in. When writing No Legal Grounds, about the stalking of a lawyer and his family, I had planned all along for the wife to leave the house and go off to stay with her sister. But when I got to that scene she wouldn’t go. Just wouldn’t do it. I tried to make her, but she told me to go pound sand.
So I walked around my writing desk thinking about it. I listened to her reasons. And it turns out she was right. She became a stronger character. Of course, I had to change my plans from that point on, which brings me to:
2.  Re-Imagine
Whether you are a plotter or a “pantser,” now is the time to jot some free-form notes on this new development.
Start with a general document on plot possibilities. Ask yourself questions like:
What further trouble can happen to this character?
What sorts of things has this character unloosed by her independent actions?
How have the other character relationships changed?
And so on. Next, add to your character’s voice journal (this is an exercise I follow and recommend in all my workshops. It’s a stream-of-consciousness document in the character’s own voice). Let the character talk to you about what’s going on, and what she might want to do about it.
3. Plan and Write the Next Two Scenes
Don’t worry about changing your entire outline yet. Just do the next two scenes. Write them. The act of writing itself is the most important way to let the characters live and breathe. Get a feel for who they are now, by writing out the consequences. Then you’ll be in much better shape to write to the end.
So what about you? Do your characters ever take off on you? How do you handle it?


Killing off good characters

WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS
Yesterday, I killed the dog.
I didn’t want to do it but it had to be done. The creature had been hanging around far too long and I had sort of grown to regret ever allowing it into my life. So I killed the dog.
I waited as long as I could — chapter twenty-two to be exact. But then I just typed the words and the mutt was gone. Now I have to endure the after-wrath. It won’t come for months because the book won’t be published until next year but I know it will come. There’s an unwritten rule in our genre that you never kill animals. Because if you do, your readers turn on you like, well, rabid dogs.
It’s not just dogs. It can be cats. I am a big fan of the British writer Minette Walters, read every book she put out. Until “The Shape of Snakes” and she had a character who tortured cats to death with duct tape. Repulsed, I threw the book across the room. I had seven cats at the time.
This rule about animals is not just limited to cats and dogs. It’s birds, hamsters, horses. I refused to see the movie “War Horse” until a friend assured me the horse didn’t die. And don’t get me started about what those damn pigs did to Boxer the Horse in “Animal Farm.” 
The killing of the good and innocent. It’s the toughest thing we writers do. I am often asked what books have influenced me most as a writer and my first answer is “Charlotte’s Web.” It taught me that yes, sometimes you just have to kill off a really good character for the sake of the story, even if it’s only a spider. 
Is it harder if it’s a human being?

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

That’s King Lear speaking. He’s grieving for the dead Cordelia. She was the good daughter, if you recall. Now Shakespeare had no qualms about killing off the good. (That’s why they called them tragedies.) We writers are still learning from him after all these years, especially those of us in the crime genre where death is the main machine in our plots. 
I’ve been thinking hard about this lately. Not just because of the dog thing but because of “Downton Abbey.” When Matthew Crawley bought the farm on that country road my mouth dropped open. Damn! They killed the good guy! He’s never coming back. Unless Mary steps into the shower and declares that his death was just a dream.
I felt the same way when Bobby Simone did his Mimi bit on “NYPD Blue.” Ditto when Col. Henry Blake’s helicopter went down in “M*A*S*H.” And I was upset that Lane Pryce hanged himself in “Mad Men” before he had a chance to make things right in his sad life.
Is it different in novels? Do readers feel less invested than viewers? Or are the attachments they form in the pure ether of their imaginations even stronger than those forged by film?
Consider Charles Dickens. He delivered his novel “The Old Curiosity Shop” chapter by chapter to his fans and when he killed off his heroine, Little Nell, all hell broke loose. One critic wrote, “Dickens killed Nell just as a butcher would slaughter a lamb.”
Author Conan Doyle always wanted to kill off Holmes. (“I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him,” he once grumbled.) When Doyle finally did Holmes in, thousands canceled their subscription to The Strand. Doyle eventually gave in and resurrected Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
Closer to home, a few years ago crime writer Karin Slaughter killed off one of her beloved characters. Readers were furious, many accusing her of doing it for the shock value and vowing to never pick up another one of her books again. Slaughter felt compelled to post an explanation on her website. 
Readers take these things personally. At least they do if you, the writer, are doing your job. It broke my heart when Beth died in “Little Women.” I was mad at Larry McMurtry for weeks after he killed Gus in “Lonesome Dove.”  It took me decades to understand why Phineas had to die in “A Separate Peace.”
In fact, I didn’t really get what Fowles was doing with that book until fairly recently when I finally got around to reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” Finney, I realized, had to die so Gene could find a way to live.
I wish I could say that in those decades between “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Hero’s Journey” that I have learned how to the handle death of the good. That is what the best books are supposed to do, after all, teach us about such big questions. But I think I have become a better at dealing with death as a writer. So let me offer a few suggestions for anyone who is struggling with this.
Make it worth something. You must create a bond between the doomed character and the reader so when that character dies, it has value. The death has to propel the plot forward or affect the emotional arc of another character. Check out this stellar passage from one of my favorite books “Smiley’s People” by John le Carré.

Slowly, [Smiley] returned his gaze to Leipzig’s face. Some dead faces, he reflected, have the dull, even stupid look of a patient under anaesthetic. Others preserve a single mood of the once varied nature – the dead man as lover, as father, as car driver, bridge player, tyrant. And some, like Leipzig’s, have ceased to preserve anything. But Leipzig’s face, even without the ropes across it, had a mood, and it was anger: anger intensified by pain, turned to fury by it; anger that had increased and become the whole man as the body lost its strength.

The death has to be organic. Make sure there is enough time for the reader to come to know the character. The death may be a surprise but there should be a subtle feeling of foreshadowing about it. Lennie Small in “Of Mice and Men” strikes an empathetic chord with the reader. That’s why his death at the hands of his best friend George to spare him from a lynch mob, is so powerful.
Don’t do it to fix a weak plot. We’ve all read books where another corpse is dropped and we go “meh.” Mercifully, I won’t include any examples here.
Keep true to your book’s tone. How do you want your readers to feel about this? Fearful? Deep sense of personal loss? Generalized feeling of human tragedy? Maybe you want them to laugh. Yeah, can be appropriate. I can’t think of any book examples but here’s an image I can’t forget from “L.A. Law”: Villainess Rosalind Shays accidently stepping to her doom in that open elevator shaft.
Don’t preach. Let the readers make their own conclusions about what the death means. Don’t tack on one of those awful codas where the hero stands around telling us what truths he has learned. And don’t, for corn’s sake, have someone say something like, “well, I guess we should steer clear of cannibals in the future.”
Be sure of what you are doing. Unless you’re in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s league, you can’t undo a death. At least not without some silly deus ex machina thing. I mean, I am glad that Spock didn’t really die from radiation poisoning in the warp drive tube. But I thought his rebirth was cheesy. I recently read a really good mystery by a successful author and I am pretty sure that the character he killed off isn’t really dead. (Can’t tell you the title; the author would kill me). I hope I am wrong. I hope the character is dead because it feels truer to this writer’s voice. Which leads me to my final point…
Let the end make room for beginnings. Pay attention to the survivors in your story and make sure death affects their lives. Leave room for redemption. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” what’s so disturbing about Tom Robinson’s death is its awful inevitably. After falsely being found guilty of rape, he tries to escape but is shot by prison guards. But are we left in despair? I don’t think so because through this experience, Jem and Scout are learning about the dark complexities of the adult world. And at the end, there is Jem, keeping Scout from squishing that little roly-poly bug. There is hope in his need to protect the most vulnerable. There is hope for us all.