We do this by giving the characters issues readers can relate with, and we do so as early in the story as possible.
Here are the character aspects that I try to include:
- Physical need – A common handicap, illness, or negative environment
- Emotional issue – A need or desire that most have felt
- A purpose – A goal that most would find praiseworthy
- Urgency – The goal must be gained soon
- Obstacles – Barriers that readers would identify with
- Vulnerability – A soft spot to exploit
- Sacrifice – Character performs a sacrificial act to overcome obstacles
For example, here is the opening of my book Reapers. Take notice of the bold-faced phrases.
The death alarm sounded, that phantom punch in the gut I always dreaded. I touched the metallic gateway valve embedded in my chest at the top of my sternum—warm but not yet hot. The alarm was real. Someone in my territory would die tonight, and I had to find the poor soul. Death didn’t care about the late hour. Reapers like me always stayed on call.
I rose from my moth-eaten reading chair, blew out the hanging lantern’s flame, and stalked across my one-room apartment to the window, guided by light from outside. The internal alarm grew stronger. Prickly vibrations raced along my cloak from the baggy sleeves to the top of the hood, tickling the two-day stubble across my cheeks and chin. Time was growing short—probably less than an hour left.
Now let’s look at the categories of these phrases.
- Phantom punch in the gut – an emotional reaction to bad news. Most people have felt that kind of punch.
- I had to find the poor soul – a purpose that readers will cheer for. The word “poor” shows the character’s own concern, and this will be transmitted to the reader.
- The late hour – an obstacle that will increase the goal’s difficultly, making the reader wonder how he will overcome it. The reader will want to ride along and witness the effort to see if it will succeed or fail.
- Moth-eaten reading chair – a negative environment that will create sympathy. Most readers are more likely to cheer for a poor man than a rich one.
- Probably less than an hour left – urgency that will encourage the reader to be concerned.
As you can see, in the first two paragraphs, I employed five of these emotional-attachment tools within the flow of the story. My hope was to generate an immediate connection, because once such a connection is firmly established, it will last throughout the story.
Here is another example from the story’s next three paragraphs. Again take note of the bold-faced phrases.
I shoved open the window sash and leaned into the darkness of the urban alley. With electricity cut-off hour long past for residents, only streetlamps glowed from a neighborhood road to the left. A tall woman in a black trench coat stood at the corner holding an umbrella over her head and a suitcase at her side, as if she were waiting for a ride, maybe a taxi.
I leaned farther out to get a better look. It hadn’t rained in three days, and the skies were clear—a dry night in Chicago and too warm for a trench coat. No cabbie would pick up this woman even if he could see her.
A slight glow around her eyes confirmed her status. She was a ghost, probably level two, far too opaque to be newly dead and glowing too much to have wandered for more than a couple of weeks. If not for the death alarm, I could take the time to collect her. For now she would have to keep wandering. I had to use all my senses to figure out who was about to die.
- Electricity cut-off hour long past for residents – A negative environment.
- No cabbie would pick up this woman even if he could see her – Emotional issue. His desire to help.
- If not for the death alarm, I could take the time to collect her – Urgency.
- I had to use all my senses to figure out who was about to die – A purpose.
Although I have employed these tools early and (I hope) created an emotional connection, I don’t just drop the tools. It is important to continue this process so the reader will stay on board and continue sympathizing with the character, but the frequency of using these tools can decrease.
Next week I will begin discussing the final two aspects, vulnerability and sacrifice.
If you have questions or comments, please post them.
Categories: Writing Tips