By Becca Puglisi
We know the importance of making our characters authentic, believable, and memorable for readers. But relevance is important, too, because it makes them relatable. Readers see characters who are facing the same issues they’re facing or dealing with the same struggles they’re dealing with, and a bond is formed.
As an example, look at To Kill a Mockingbird. It was written in 1960, but this story about children navigating a racially-charged culture that is altering their safe and comfortable world is still relevant to us almost 50 years later.
Relevance in your stories is about finding an element for your character or story that your reader can relate to in the real world. It might be heavy (a theme, social or political issue, moral quandary, or mental obstacle) or minor (a hobby or interest, dominant character trait, or common missing human need). Either can be effective. And if you can come up with a common thread that hasn’t been used a million times, that’s always a plus.
To that end, I’d like to share a real-life malady I’ve recently learned about that may be incredibly relevant to readers today.
Exhaustion, emotional withdrawal, apathy, or indifference experienced by those who have been exposed to repeated trauma, tragedy, and appeals for assistance
This condition is all-to-common in occupations where people are constantly exposed to trauma (e.g. first responders, social workers, journalists, therapists, animal welfare workers, etc.) The frequent exposure to horrible events inherent in these jobs leads to a necessary psychological withdrawal as these workers try to distance themselves from what they’re seeing. While a certain level of withdrawal is healthy, serious cases can lead to problems on the job, relationship conflict, and debilitating mental conditions like PTSD.
Well, you might think, that’s interesting, but my character doesn’t have that kind of job.
Due to the 24-hour cycle of social media and news networks, compassion fatigue is becoming much more widespread. The public’s constant exposure to the suffering of others—sometimes on a hard-to-fathom scale—is taking its toll.
Compassion fatigue presents with the following symptoms:
This should give you an idea of how detrimental compassion fatigue can be. You may even recognize some of these symptoms in yourself as you navigate the constant barrage of news coverage. This malady is becoming more common, and therefore more relevant, for today’s readers. As such, it might be something that could work in your story, but as with any real physical or emotional affliction, it needs to be handled responsibly and thoughtfully.
The first consideration is whether or not compassion fatigue actually works for your character. We’ve all seen the results of authors trying to force certain habits, personality traits, or emotional responses onto their cast members. The inauthenticity is almost unbearable, leading to a disconnect with readers.
As with any other aspect of characterization, you have to do your homework and make sure it makes sense for the character. Compassion fatigue might be a reasonable outcome for someone who…
Basically, if your character consistently witnesses circumstances that naturally arouse their empathy but they’re unable to do anything about those situations, they’re at high risk for compassion fatigue. If this is the case for your character, it may be something that can be written into your story.
Compassion fatigue is a real ailment and, like any real-life element, it needs to be represented accurately. If you’ve suffered with this condition, you’ll have firsthand experience and it will be easier to write. If you haven’t, get to work researching.
Gather the information you need so you can write this condition accurately and realistically for your character.
Like any physical or mental ailment, compassion fatigue doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It will have far-reaching effects on your character that will impact your story, so it should only be included if those effects serve your purposes. Here are a few natural outcomes of compassion fatigue that might do your story some good:
Compassion fatigue is just one example of an element that could provide a sense of relevance for your readers. The options for writing stories that feel very “now” are endless.
If you can find that one element to connect your character with today’s reader, it won’t matter how different they are in gender, age, race, time period, or geographic location. It will be enough to start that empathy bond that can carry readers all the way through the story to make sure the character comes out okay.
What’s relevant about the story you’re writing? Or have you read a book recently that resonated with you because it felt very now or current? Please share it with us down in the comments!
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 500,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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