Recently, I read EVIL GENIUS by Catherine Jinks. It was enjoyable and funny with good plot twists, but I didn’t love it. At first, I thought it was because it was a bit too long and the story’s flavor wasn’t something I naturally gravitate toward. But, after reading the sequel, GENIUS SQUAD, I discovered that wasn’t true. The reason I didn’t love these books is because they evoked very little emotion from me.
The obvious question is ‘why?’ Why didn’t these books evoke much emotion? The main character has interesting problems and grows in wonderful ways. The minor characters play good roles both in the story and the main character’s growth. Plus, the story was engaging. So why wasn’t there much emotion involved?
I didn’t see it while reading the first book, but it became obvious in the second. The way both stories are written, the language used to tell the story, keeps us at a distance from the main character.
Okay, but, is that really a problem? He’s not real, so why should we care how much distance there is between us? Well, in real life, how do long-distance relationships usually turn out? Sometimes they’re fine, but often times they fail because there isn’t enough closeness.
I think fiction is very similar. The closer we are to the main character, the more emotion we’ll feel, the better we’ll understand his motivations and actions, and the louder we’ll cheer for him. If there’s distance, then he becomes this person who did this thing in a story. Kind of like reading about people in the news. We might enjoy what they did or feel sad about what happened to them, but then we forget everything because we don’t know them on a personal level. If we did know them, you can bet we wouldn’t forget anything.
I think this is the hardest part of writing fiction, especially for introverted writers. I’m an introvert, and hold myself at a nice, safe distance from people I don’t know well. In my early novels, I did the same with my main characters. Often, the minor characters were easier to know than the main character – which was another part of me coming out. I’m good at reading other people, but hide myself a little too well from others. As a result, the most common advice I got from fellow critiquers was to give them more of my main character. In order to do that, I had to do something far scarier: expose my main character completely, thus exposing myself. Yikes!
But it’s necessary. One of the biggest things I learned growing up is that we can’t really know someone unless there’s no distance between us. If there’s distance, then there’s room to hide faults and shortcomings. And if a character hides his faults from us, then how can we identify with him? A little, yeah, but not completely.
So, I guess what I’m saying, in a very round-about way, is that, in order to evoke emotion for a fictional character, we have to create a realistic relationship between that character and the reader by eliminating all distance between them. How much distance is between you and your significant other? Maybe a little...we do need personal space, after all. But there can’t be any between a character and a reader. They must be so close that the two people become one, so the reader is almost living vicariously through the character.
To do that, the reader needs to be directly in the story. We need to show it to him, not tell it. Telling is distance; showing is transporting the reader right into the scene. Then, if your character is well-developed, then the reader will experience everything you show him through your character’s actions, dialogue and monologue. And the reader won’t be able to help but feel connected to this imaginary person.
All this is hard work. Really hard work. But, if we don’t do it, then our readers won’t connect. And, if they don’t connect, why should they care about what happens to our characters? If they don’t care, why should they read our work?