Writing Tip – Creating an Emotional Connection with Readers (Part Two)

WritingHintsPhotoLast week, I began discussing ways to create an emotional connection between readers and characters, and I gave examples demonstrating how to employ the first five tools in the list below:

  1. Physical need – A common handicap, illness, or negative environment
  2. Emotional issue – A need or desire that most have felt
  3. A purpose – A goal that most would find praiseworthy
  4. Urgency – The goal must be gained soon
  5. Obstacles – Barriers that readers would identify with
  6. Vulnerability – A soft spot to exploit
  7. Sacrifice – Character performs a sacrificial act to overcome obstacles

This week I will begin covering the final two tools.

Vulnerability – A soft spot to exploit

Every hero needs a tender spot in both body and heart. Even Superman had both – Kryptonite and Lois Lane. I like to reveal this vulnerability early for a couple of reasons. (1) So when the villain exploits the weakness, it isn’t a surprise, as if the weakness were tacked on late in the game. (2) The vulnerability is an aspect the reader can wonder and worry about as the story progresses. Even worry is part of emotionally connecting.

Here is how I did this in Reapers:

On the dresser’s top, I slid a tri-fold picture frame closer and ran a finger along the photos of my father, mother, and Misty. I touched her image. Misty. The girl across the street. The girl I had known all my life before I had to leave for good.

I touched the pewter band on my ring finger, a gift from Misty when we were both thirteen, the day we confirmed our promise to each other—the day I left home for the last time.

Her voice, flavored as always with a lovely Scottish accent, filtered into my mind. “Twenty years is a long time,” she had whispered as she rested her head on my shoulder. “No matter what, I’ll be waiting for you. Just promise me you’ll do everything you can to get out early. I hear there are shortcuts.”

I pushed the frame back in place. Someday I would see her again … if she was still alive.

Misty, a lost love, is Phoenix’s soft spot, and readers feel his love and concern for her. Of course, I use the soft spot later to stab his soul. Experienced readers know ahead of time that such a stab will come, so they will worry about it, not knowing when it will come and how it will manifest.

Sacrifice – Character performs a sacrificial act to overcome obstacles

Readers like to see sacrificial characters. In order to establish that quality, I like to show a sacrificial act early, but I make the act small at first. My intent is to show willingness to sacrifice without having the character jump right in with a huge sacrifice. Start small and build up so that each step isn’t a huge surprise but rather a pleasing act that grows and grows.

Here is an early sacrifice for Phoenix in Reapers:

I shook the bottle, making it rattle. “Only two pills left. If they don’t help, I brought something injectable, but it’s way past expired so it has to be a last resort.”

“We believe in you, Phoenix,” Colm said. “You will make the right choice.”

“Let’s just hope a DEO doesn’t show up, or all choices are out the door. Word on the street says that Molly’s critical, so an officer might get wind of it.”

Since medicine was illegal, carrying the death penalty, Phoenix acted sacrificially to bring the pills to help the family. The odds that he would get caught were high enough to worry about, but he didn’t have a gun to his head, so this initial sacrifice wasn’t huge. Readers can identify with a first reasonable risk, and they won’t be shocked as he risks more and more with each future sacrifice. Yet, they will appreciate each faithful step as the character grows and excels.

Next week, I will continue with this series by showing how to continue using the emotional attachment tools as the story progresses, including ramping up the tests of sacrifice and exploiting the character’s vulnerability.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.

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12 replies

  1. it seems like I’ve followed this technique so far. Cool. Mr. Davis, when is the next critique submission?

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    • You are welcome to submit something to be critiqued anytime. I have been posting two submissions each Friday, and I have about ten in line to post, so anything you send me will have to wait in line a few weeks.

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  2. So in my story I have two main characters. One is slightly bigger than the other. Is it okay to have the lesser main character be the one to sacrifice something in the beginning instead of the main one? Or do they both need to preform a sacrificial act?

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    • That’s hard to say without more details.

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    • I kind of think it’d be possible depending on what it does to the main character. That is, it has the potential to be very powerful and life-changing for the main character depending on what you’re going for. Offhand, I can envision these scenarios (I am not saying you are or should use them; just offering examples of what I could see, offhand, working):

      1) The 2nd character does it because the main character refuses;
      2) The 2nd character’s action reveals some kind of cowardice or selfishness in the main character that can be used for…a whole spectrum of purposes including but not limited to shame, guilt, determination, awe (which could indirectly turn the 2nd character into the ‘mentor’ role, of a sort – not an actual mentor, necessarily, but a person from whom the main character learns), and revenge;
      3) In a less drastic turn, the 2nd character is simply in a better position than the main character, but since you’re starting with a self-sacrificial act you’re promising an escalation that leads to something even bigger and better for the main character.

      There’s probably more, but the point is I can see it working. I read one book where it starts out with a character allowing himself to be executed, and the rest of the book is the two main characters dealing with that on top of the plot.

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      • *saying you are using or should use

        Alright, yes, I self-edit repeatedly….

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        • Mr. Davis,
          In my story the second character sacrifices forces him to leave his home for a bit. The first character doesn’t want him to leave because she’s scared for his safety and happiness. But ultimately his leaving sets her on her own journey. Perhaps if I have my main character give up something small in the beginning, a token or something that means a lot to her, would that count as a sacrifice?

          Kaci,
          Thank you for responding. I’m not sure if any of those would work at the moment but they do give my some ideas for future reference.

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  3. I found this to be a very interesting explanation. =)

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