Make Them Cry
(Sorry to be late. I’m not fully here yet. — Second cup of coffee — I looked up at the title I’d written the first time around and thought “that doesn’t look right.” Yeah. I’d typed it Mad Genius Club instead of Make Them Cry. So bear with me.)
But — say you — I don’t want to make them cry. Fine, make them laugh, then. Or leave a fine lingering poetical mist of sadness for a home never seen hanging upon their souls when you finish the story.
Whatever you do, though, make them feel something.
The main issue I have with indie stories — particularly very new writers — no matter how interesting the plot twists or how funny the events, if I don’t care for the characters, round about the mid point I find myself thinking “why am I reading this?” And then I don’t read anymore.
There are faster ways of losing me as a reader, of course, the main one being making one of those whooping mistakes that you just go “WHAT?” on the first chapter. Like, during the Regency, in England, a nobleman shooting a peasant in public and being let go because “it’s just a peasant.” Oh, sure, France before the revolution. BUT ENGLAND? (BTW that was a traditionally published book by one of my ex-publishers. Layers and layers of fact checkers.)
However these are books that objectively have nothing wrong with them. They have a plot and everything. The plot even makes sense. It’s just the character falls into the plot like an accident. There is nothing needed, nothing lacking in the character. The character might want to win the race, kiss the girl or fly to the moon: but he doesn’t need it. It’s not something necessary to fill in a hole in his self, it’s not something needed to restore lost pride, to heal a wound or to become someone better.
You do that and sure as check, you might string me along for a few pages just to see what you’ll do next, but in the end there will be no connection with your character and even if he’s managing ten impossible feats a week, who cares?
Once upon a time, I think — judging by some of the pot boilers I devoured as a kid when the main competition in entertainment was watching the neighbors or listening to the interminable radio soap operas — people were more willing to read for the wonder for “I’ll see how he’ll top this.”
Nowadays most people seem to read for the one thing TV/movies or even games can’t give you: to be behind the eyes of someone else for a time, and to live through their emotional journey as they engage in the extraordinary.
In a way it’s not new, though. Even Shakespeare’s comedies have this kind of emotional engagement. (Yes, I know they are plays. Unfortunately most of our TV/movie writers are no Shakespeare. No bad reflection on them, as I’m not either.) Yeah, there’s the bit with the dog, but in the end Jack gets Jill and does something he needs/fixes something.
This is not a matter even of “unpleasant people doing unpleasant things” which turns me off (sometimes) but which some people like (heaven knows why.)
It’s more a matter of you wondering “Why are you doing that now? There’s nothing pushing you.”
I’m not saying your character should be pushed (by circumstances) every step of the way. That’s what Kate calls “plotting by dropping walls on the character” and it don’t work too well after a while, when you start wondering if your character is going to just suddenly die (I have a novel to fix where I did that.) I’m talking about something INTERNAL driving your character.
Say — not that this has anything to do with a book I’m revising — that a young man was held captive in fairyland and being at the age where anything like that would make him feel horrible, but also things happened (never specified) including playing with his mind, and he’s a man who prides himself on his intelligence. Well, a year later, as he turns seventeen, he’s still feeling it and he’s not self-confident or able to go forth and do things on his own. His inventions have all turned wrong, and he feels like a little kid, who has to be watched over because he has nightmares and wakes up screaming and crying.
So when he gets involved in rescuing a family — and a lady fair of about 16 — he needs to do it. He needs to get through to get a piece of his own back.
And that allows the readers to go through the ride along with him. IF I do my job right (you get to figure that out in a month or so, unless I keep getting interrupted) you’ll need for him to succeed because you’ve invested yourself in who he is. And when he redeems himself, you come through with him, and end up feeling … well… catharsis. And better at the end.
Short stories you can have this little burst of feeling. It’s easy to manipulate people and leave them sorry or happy or laughing. It’s not as necessary that the character’s adventure have a feeling-punch at the end. BUT if they do, well… so much the better.
However for anything longer than 5k words? You need that feeling to pull you through. You need it there.
Remember your starting place? You must have a problem, a character and a setting. For extra points, your problem character and setting must all be related. I.e. say you have a famine planet and the problem is hunger, your character is probably hungry. Mind you if you have a character that’s the only well fed in the place that works too — give him guilt or whatever as a motivation — but usually that’s how it works.
Now, for a novella or novel go beyond that. The problem might not be linked to your character directly. Perhaps he’s just adventurous of the “At fourteen I went to the sea, having seen everything I wanted to on land.” Sure. This happens. BUT for a satisfying result? Make his going to the sea solve a problem he might not even be aware of.
Like, say, his dad perished at sea before the character was even born. He has to go and prove he can come back. Or, say, his comfortable life on land is also suffocating and won’t let him prove himself.
The author of one of the world’s worst books (some of you know who, and yes, indie) says that it’s wrong to give your character flaws, because people need to look up to the flawless. or something. I say it’s wrong to make your characters flawless, because that makes them non-human, without motivation and uninteresting to those of us who are humans.
So take the reader on a fun adventure, too. But make it mean something. Make it mean something to the character. Make it fulfill something the character needs.
The reader will go through the pain with your character, emerge with the character into victory. And buy more of your books.