By Margaret Brownley
Think back to your earliest childhood memory. You were probably three, four or perhaps even five at the time. Now think about how you felt. You might have been scared or hurt. Perhaps you felt giddy with joy or maybe even lonely and confused. Whatever the emotion, it was strong enough to make a deep and lasting impression or the memory wouldn’t have stayed with you all these years.
The same type of emotional response that fuels our memory banks is also what makes characters memorable. Think back to all your favorite movie and book scenes. Characters that make us laugh, cry or tremble with fear stay with us long after we turn the last page or walk out of a theater. I was only ten when I read Little Women but I still remember feeling sad when Beth died.
Readers choose genres for emotional reasons. They read romances to experience the joy of falling in love. They expect thrillers to excite; horror to shock; mysteries to surprise. If a book disappoints, it’s generally because it fails to meet a reader’s emotional expectations. Readers don’t want to read a story, they want to feel it.
Here are some tips for giving your story an emotional lift.
Make Us Care
There are many ways to reach a reader’s emotional core, but first of all you must make readers care about the character. Melvin in As Good as it Gets was one of the most flawed and unlikeable characters you’d ever hope to meet. Melvin’s gruff exterior wouldn’t have worked without the lonely and vulnerable man inside who made us care.
Make Us Bond
Another way to reach readers emotionally is to make them bond with the character through recognition and familiarity. I’ve never lived in the ocean depths, but I’ve known loss and I know how it feels to be a concerned parent. That’s what made me identify with and care about an overprotective clownfish named Marlin in Finding Nemo. Write about werewolves if you want, set your story on Planet X, but it’s the humanity of your characters that will keep readers turning those pages.
Make Us Feel
Readers are also affected emotionally through theme. Theme is the emotional base beneath the story. We are told to write what we know. Better advice would be to write what we’re passionate about. What’s important to you? What are your passions? Is it love, freedom, salvation or injustice? The passion of your theme will strike a chord in readers.
Don’t just state an emotion, show it. I don’t want to know that Paul is angry. I want to see him tighten his lips and pull down his eyebrows. The seven basic emotions are anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise. These basic emotions have been proven to produce certain facial expressions. Learn them and use them.
Write the Truth
Emotions spring from truth; Loss is sad, war is tough, love is grand. Write about truth and your readers can’t help but respond with emotion.
Margaret Brownley is a N.Y. Times bestselling author with more than twenty-five books to her credit, including her popular Rocky Creek and Brides of Last Chance Ranch series. A Romance Writers of American RITA finalist, Margaret’s fiction has won many awards and her books have been published in fifteen languages. Living in Southern California Margaret has recently discovered a new source of emotion: high gas prices!