How to Get Your Characters to Connect

Photo credit: GraceOda on Flickr
So I've been doing a lot of editing lately, while also first drafting and reading, which means I've been thinking a lot about characters. Specifically, how to spark that magical character-reader connections.

Oftentimes, when writers are querying, they'll hear from agents or editors that the reader just didn't connect with their work. There can be a million reasons for this, but when the connection is missing from your characters, I've found there's often a reason you can point to directly in the manuscript, and many times that reason is a lack of depth in the POV.

When reading, the best books don't make you feel like you're reading about someone, they make you feel as though you're experiencing whatever the characters are experiencing. You feel their pain, you know their emotions, you hear their thoughts, you see what they see and smell what they smell and feel what they feel. Of course, you aren't literally experiencing everything, but a great book will make the connection feel so deep it's almost as if you are.

So how do you accomplish that with your characters? There are a few keys you can focus on to really deepen that connection:

  • Show emotion. I wrote a whole blog post on writing emotion effectively and the difference between telling and showing emotion, but the short version is this: every time you see a named emotion ("I was so angry," "he looked sad," etc.) in your WIP, stop and think about how you can rewrite it without naming that emotion. Think about what that emotion makes your character feel physically, how it affects their thoughts, and actions. Think about what it feels like to experience that emotion— and rather than naming it, describe it instead and let the readers put together the pieces. (P.S.: A truly excellent resource that makes this a billion times easier is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi—I can't recommend it enough!)

  • Cut down on filtering. Similarly, I've also already written a blog post on how to (and why you should) remove filter phrases, but I'll do a quick summary here: filtering is a form of telling, and appears in phrases like "I thought," "I remembered," "I saw," "I smelled," "I felt," etc. It's often unnecessary and adds a layer of distance between the reader and the character because you're filtering what your character is experiencing through writer-speak. By removing the phrases whenever possible and just describing your characters experiences instead, the writing becomes more immediate and helps to establish that sense of closeness to the POV character(s). 

  • Get us in your POV character's head. What are your characters thinking? Why do they make decisions the way they do? How do they come to one conclusion or another? In limited third or first person POV, readers should know what your POV character is thinking (and feeling) at all times. Even if readers disagree with your character's reasoning for one decision or another, they should see your character's thought process there on the page, so they never have to stop and ask themselves, "but why did they do that?" This often requires slowing down while writing to think about what your characters are thinking or feeling as the events of their story happens—but this is vital to getting your readers to feel as though they really understand your characters. 

So those are my top getting-your-characters-to-connect tips! Now I want to hear from you: what gets you to connect to characters in books you read? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Having trouble getting readers to connect to your characters? @Ava_Jae shares some connection-forging tips. (Click to tweet)  
How do you get your characters to connect to readers? Author @Ava_Jae shares some tips. (Click to tweet)

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