By Lori Freeland
There are many crucial parts to putting a story together. But most writing teachers will tell you the key to catching and keeping readers is to build an emotional connection. One way to make that happen is through authenticity—of your characters, their arcs and relationships, and how they react to the world around them. Write characters who feel like real people. This includes who they are, the way they interact with others, and how they handle relationships and events.
Once we’ve gotten to know someone, we expect them to act certain ways. It’s the same with characters. If they do stray from what a reader expects, show us why. Your character can do almost anything—as long as you give them believable and credible motivations. Readers go along with what they understand and see for themselves.
Setup: Sue’s neighbor John asks her to watch his dog. The reader knows Sue dislikes John and believes she’ll say no to anything he asks.
Instead, she says, “Of course, I’ll watch your dog.”
Without motivation, it feels like the writer made a mistake in not being consistent with Sue’s character. In this case, a little internal thought from her goes a long way.
“Of course, I’ll watch your dog.” The dog wasn’t the problem.
Remember to limit internal thought to your POV character. The reader can only be “in the head” of the character telling the story in that scene. For more on POV, see P-O-What? Understanding Point of View.
We can go back to Sue (the POV character) and her perception of what’s happening with John (our non-POV) by giving him actions, expressions, or voice cues to help her and the reader figure out that more is going on behind his words. This is called subtext. For more information, see Margie Lawson’s post Know Subtext? Got Subtext on the Page?
Setup: John asks Sue to watch his dog. The reader knows John hates Sue. His ask feels off unless we see that things aren’t normal.
Sue looked up from the book she’d been reading on her front porch to find her annoying neighbor John standing in her yard.
“I have to go out of town tonight. Last-minute.” The words rushed, he glanced down. Back up. Shoved his hands into his pockets. “Could you possibly keep my dog?”
Her response should be a dismissive no. Except, he looked haggard. Worn down. Totally unlike his usual, annoying, whatever-happens self. The fact that he was even in her yard felt off.
So the word that came out of her mouth instead was a soft “yes.”
Ask yourself this question. If my character was a real person in a real situation, how would they respond? Be careful not to just throw in how you would respond. It’s not about you.
Example: If a man comes home and finds his wife dead, he isn’t going to shower and have dinner like nothing happened.
Unless… he paid someone to kill her, and he’s planning to admire the handiwork before he disposes of the body.
Example: If Tina’s house burns down and her family dies, she’s not going to be at a coffee shop the next day laughing with friends.
Unless... she set the fire and has a major mental illness.
Sometimes writers are absorbed in moving the story along, and they don’t stop to think about how someone would appropriately react to events, triggers, words, or turning points in a story.
For the most part, people react in this order:
Depending on what a character’s reacting to, you might only need one of these. But if it’s important news, a trigger, a major event, or a turning point, you might have all three. Using the correct order helps the reaction feel less “clinical” and more real.
Here’s an unrealistic reaction.
Set-up: Shy teen Jess wrote a love story that went viral even though she’s never been kissed. When an escalator in a hotel lobby dumps her into desperate TV heartthrob Gabe—and his spotlight—he decides she’ll be the perfect escape from his fans.
Heat from his palms sizzle through my dress. He leans so close his mouth grazes my ear. “Do a desperate guy a favor?”
“W-what?” The smell of fresh laundry and the hotel shower gel combine into kryptonite that buckles my knees.
His hands hold me up, but he pulls back, and I can see his face. His fifty-watt grin comes with its very own set of to-die-for dimples. “Baby,” he says. “I’ve missed you.” Then tilts his head, closes his eyes, and presses his mouth to mine.
And hijacks my very first kiss.
The last line (in bold) skips her reaction entirely and disappoints the reader. This kiss is a big deal. It won’t be a big deal to the reader if we don’t show it being a big deal to Jess. The way she feels, what she does, and what she thinks will depend on who she is as a person.
My world slips sideways, and I know I’ve written Sara and Dante’s first kiss in Haunted all wrong. I never mentioned the shivers that pour over Sara’s skin at the same time her body flushes. I didn’t describe the flutter in her stomach as Dante’s lips brush hers. I left out the very real urge for her toes to curl when he flattens his palms against her back. I’d given their kiss a paltry paragraph when it deserved an entire freaking page.
Because up until now, Jessica Thorne—the girl who’s penned thousands of words and hundreds of pages of romance—has never, ever been kissed. Not even once.
Writing authentic characters that connect with readers doesn’t have to be hard. It just takes thought and practice. Being aware that there may be an issue is the first step.
Take out your work in progress and find a place where your characters should react. Are they believable? Credible? Do they feel real? If yes, way to go! If no, here’s your chance to sharpen your writing skills and make that interaction stronger.
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Lori Freeland wrote her first story at age five. It wasn’t good. But it left her with a firm belief that everyone has a story to tell. An author, editor, and writing coach, she holds a BA in psychology from The University of Wisconsin and lives in the Dallas area. She’s presented multiple workshops at conferences across the country and writes articles, novels, and everything in between. When she’s not curled up with her husband and dogs drinking too much coffee and worrying about her adult kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head. You can visit her at lorifreeland.com or lafreeland.com.
Some accidents were meant to be.
Gabe isn’t a werewolf. He just plays one on TV.
Jess isn’t a guy magnet. She just writes about teen romance.
TV heartthrob Gabriel Wade has never met a party he couldn’t rock, a problem he couldn’t dodge, or a crowd he couldn’t play. Homeschooled Jessica Thorne has never met a party she couldn’t wallflower, a problem she couldn’t stress over, or a crowd she couldn’t escape. But they both know what it’s like to lose someone—someone who’s still here.
After a hotel escalator dumps Jess into Gabe’s spotlight and he unknowingly hijacks her first kiss, he decides she’ll be the perfect decoy for the paparazzi—if he can convince her to play his “girlfriend of the week.” Jess wants nothing to do with TV’s Hottest Hairball or his Hollywood ego. And by the time she figures out he isn’t who she thought, it might be too late to admit she needs him as much as he needs her. Even if he wants her for real.
Lori Freeland author/editor/writing coach
lorifreeland.com (young adult & contemporary romance fiction)
lafreeland.com (inspirational blog & resources for writers)
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