Characters are the major conduits for a reader into the story’s emotional life.
Reader question via @Sylent_steel from my recent #scriptchat session:
I love my characters! What is the best way to make sure readers will too?
Seems like you’re off to a good start in that you already love your characters. Presumably your affection for them will show up on the page.
That’s the thing about characters: They are the major conduits for a reader into the story’s emotional life. The more we dig into them, the more we understand the psychological dynamics at work in who they are and where their narrative destiny is taking them, the more likely we will be able to tap into their emotional nature.
First tip: Look for big ticket items such as want and need, and in particular zero in on aspects of their lives which are universal in nature. Trust. Fear. Hope. Despair. Belief. Regret. Each of us as individuals in our lifetime acquires a kaleidoscope of experiences, all of them coming with some form of emotional attachment and meaning. So, too, with characters. Those big issues can not only create a point of identification with a reader, but also help shape where the plot goes.
Also look for small specific dynamics at work in the lives of your characters. There’s a quote I love from author Anne Beattie: “People forget years and remember moments.” I don’t know about you, but that’s my experience with movies. You say a movie title, I immediately conjure up moments from that movie. And sometimes, the most powerful moments are the seemingly small ones.
Here’s an example from The Shawshank Redemption, a movie filled with memorable moments. There is a beautiful four-moment subplot centering around a harmonica:
- After Andy gets out of solitary confinement for the first time, he heads to the mess hall for a meal with the others. Asked how he survived, here is Andy’s reply and the ensuing conversation:
I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company.
Hardly felt the time at all.
Oh, they let you tote that record
player down there, huh? I could'a
swore they confiscated that stuff.
(taps his heart, his head)
The music was here...and here.
That's the one thing they can't
confiscate, not ever. That's the
beauty of it. Haven't you ever felt
that way about music, Red?
Played a mean harmonica as a younger
man. Lost my taste for it. Didn't
make much sense on the inside.
Here's where it makes most sense.
We need it so we don't forget.
That there are things in this world
not carved out of gray stone. That
there's a small place inside of us
they can never lock away, and that
place is called hope.
Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a
man insane. It's got no place here.
Better get used to the idea.
So this little moment establishes two things: Hope, which is a HUGE theme in the story, and the harmonica.
- Later Andy surprises Red by giving him a gift: A harmonica.
It’s a nice reversal in that Red is the guy who gets things including Andy’s rock hammer. Here Andy repays the gesture. Again a nice little moment cementing their evolving friendship.
- In a scene soon after, Red is alone in his cell. He pulls out the harmonica. Studies it. Puts it to his lips and gives it the tiniest of toots. Puts it back in the box. And that is that.
This quiet tiny moment speaks volumes. Andy made a specific connection between hope and music. Indeed, he reinforced it by playing the Mozart opera over the prison loudspeaker system, a moment which transfixed the entire prison population. Here is how Red responded to that moment:
I have no idea to this day what
them two Italian ladies were
singin' about. Truth is, I don't
want to know. Some things are best
left unsaid. I like to think they
were singin' about something so
beautiful it can't be expressed in
words, and makes your heart ache
because of it.
CAMERA brings us to Red.
I tell you, those voices soared.
Higher and farther than anybody in
a gray place dares to dream. It was
like some beautiful bird flapped
into our drab little cage and made
these walls dissolve away...and for
the briefest of moments -- every
last man at Shawshank felt free.
So harmonica = music = hope. The fact Red in that private moment in his cell where he gives the harmonica nothing more than a little toot suggests he’s not bought into the message of hope. Which leads us to one of the most emotionally riveting moments in the script.
- The day before Andy escapes, he makes Red promise if he ever gets out of prison to go to a field in Buxton:
One in particular. Got a long rock
wall with a big oak at the north
end. Like something out of a Robert
Frost poem. It's where I asked my
wife to marry me. We'd gone for a
picnic. We made love under that
tree. I asked and she said yes.
Promise me, Red. If you ever get
out, find that spot. In the base of
that wall you'll find a rock that
has no earthly business in a Maine
hayfield. A piece of black volcanic
glass. You'll find something buried
under it I want you to have.
What? What's buried there?
You'll just have to pry up that
rock and see.
Which leads to this scene:
Now listen to the soundtrack… carefully. In the cut called “Compass and Guns,” at the 2:44 mark, precisely when Red first sees the tree in the field, we hear a harmonica. Then again at 3:15. I’ve cued it up so you can listen to it here.
A tiny moment, but what a wondrous grace note to round out the harmonica = music = hope theme. Of course, capped off by the final side of dialogue in the movie:
I hope I can make it across the
border. I hope to see my friend
and shake his hand. I hope the
Pacific is as blue as it has been
in my dreams.
Sigh. Such a great movie.
Circling back to where we started, some advice to make readers love your characters as much as you do:
- Love your characters: That passion makes it more likely you will write vibrant, alive characters. If you care about them, hopefully others will care about them, too.
- Look for the big ticket items: Universal dynamics and themes your characters may have at work in their lives as those help to sweep up a reader into larger drama of those characters’ lives.
- Look for small, meaningful moments: Where pure, honest, genuine emotion can speak directly to the reader.
There is a host of other things you can do. Make the characters funny. Charming. Entertaining. Courageous. And don’t forget, there are some characters who you want us to hate. But let’s start the conversation here.
GITS readers, what are your thoughts? How do you write characters you love so that others will love them as well?
Reader Question: What is the best way to make sure readers love my characters? was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.