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.

27 Comments

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27 responses to “Make Them Cry

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    I think there’s a difference between a “flawed human being” and a “human with flaws”.

    The “flawed human being” is defined by the flaws while the “human with flaws” is more than just his flaws.

    As for the “make them feel/cry”, I understand what you’re saying plus IMO there has to be a sense of the “character may fail” and “we must care if he fails”.

    I once read a short story that was basically Clark Kent comes to town, sees the problem, becomes Superman, and easily fixes the problem. Even the fact that the “bad guy” was Clark’s adopted child didn’t save the story because the writer really didn’t make us “feel” Clark’s pain.

  2. TRX

    What I often see is a story that’s distorted because the author insists on presenting it through their character’s flaws, or a character so full of internal turmoil they’re annoying.

    > And that allows the readers to go through the ride along with him.

    When your character is too insistent, too flawed, or too tumultuous, there’s no *room* for the reader to ride along with him. The story is already full of characters.

    • No, no, no. Weirdly I haven’t stumbled on those. Yeah, an excess is not good either.

      • TRX

        I suspect we’d have opposing opinions on some of the same books and characters.

        I can only accept limited amounts of angst, sorrow, stupidity, or “flaw” before I figure the character really ought to get a life, or defenstrate, or something, and just let the story move on.

        Police procedurals are particular offenders here. Someday I’ll read one where the main character has all of his ducks in a row and loves his job, and I’ll plotz.

        • B. Durbin

          Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy had a character that I wanted to choke. However, that particular character did get slapped across the face by reality hard enough that she actually started to move past her flaws, which is why you actually care about her.

        • scott2harrison

          Try Deaver’s “The Bone Collector” and the sequels. I would say that the main characters have at least most of their ducks in a row and they very much do love their jobs.

        • I kind of doubt it. Stupidity is right out and angst gets on my nerves. Sorrow, depends on what you do with it.
          I don’t like procedurals. To work they have to be wildly inaccurate.

  3. Okay: I think I can almost grasp this, but I don’t quite do. I think you’re saying that the character must be facing high stakes, whether it’s survival, honor, success, or love. But there seems more to it than this.

    • B. Durbin

      Did you ever hear the story about the Hollywood producer who classified all scripts as either Cinderella or Goldilocks? He’d buy Cinderella, but he’d never buy Goldilocks. That’s because, as written, Goldilocks is just sort of *there* in the story, and can easily be swapped out. (In fact, she was swapped out—apparently, the original story had “Silverlocks”, an old indigent woman, who stumbled on the house of three bachelor woodcutters.) Cinderella’s character can’t be swapped out; she has to be the stepdaughter, more worthy than her stepsisters, drudging along while dreaming of the prosperity that she once had. (It’s not a rags-to-riches story but a riches-to-rags-to-restoration story.)

      Anyway. Cinderella has been adapted innumerable times, while Goldilocks? Not so much. It’s hard to invest in nonentities.

      Does that help?

      • Reality Observer

        Now, that is well put.

      • Mary

        The old woman and Silverhair were in fact two different prior characters.

        Indeed, there’s some evidence that originally, it was a beast fable, and the character was a vixen.

    • Yes. The stakes MUST matter to him, even if to no one else

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      It is about matching the character, their drives, the problems, and the stakes to reader sentiment.

      The stakes don’t have to be high, so long as they matter to the character, and that character’s need matters to the reader.

      You don’t want to read about someone working routinely on an assembly line, especially if the exact same story could be told on another shift, when someone else punches in. It doesn’t mean you can’t write a good story about a worker on an assembly line. If you do, things are probably not routine, and your choice of a specific character should matter so that their choices matter.

      Someone who always perfectly succeeds is as boring as someone who always miserably fails.

      Your aim is having at least one question that the reader wants the answer for at every point in the story.

      If Nation of Islam Neo-Nazis are going to burn down an orphanage unless they are beaten to a pulp, a hero who does while battling ennui and apathy is likely to be in a snoozer, not a thriller. NoINN imply higher stakes than a simple orphanage, and would be a better match for a character with some sort of driving need to fight them all, and if necessary singlehandedly. Crazy racist who can’t get anyone to listen to his theories about what they are really up to would probably turn off so many readers that there would be a very small market.

      • B. Durbin

        “It doesn’t mean you can’t write a good story about a worker on an assembly line. If you do, things are probably not routine”

        I once described a job I had as a radio board operator as “boring, if you’re lucky.” If it wasn’t boring, something had gone very wrong. (Since it was a news station, that “wrong” didn’t have to be technical, though it often was.)

  4. “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.”

    I just watched Rocky and this really struck me.

    Rocky is not only kind of dumb, he works for a loan shark on the side… and fails to break some dude’s finger when told. The girl at the pet shop is insanely nervous and shy. Her brother has… er… anger management issues, is a drunk, and steals from the meat packing company he works for. Apollo Creed is so arrogant he doesn’t pay any attention to the maniac on television that’s wailing away at a slab of beef.

    It’s like flaws turned up to “eleven”, but it just plain works. No idea why. I like that they could really take the time to show all of this character, though. More recent movies are so over-plotted, there is no regard for the human element anymore. But they really make you experience how much of a nobody Rocky really is.

    • The Other Sean

      Bullwinkle was even more flawed than Rocky.
      Wait, what, that’s not the Rocky you’re referring to.
      Sorry, I’ve got to go hunt moose and squirrel.

    • julieapascal

      It’s been an eternity since I saw Rocky but going by your description even Apollo Creed needs something very very badly. Rocky doesn’t have much opportunity to “make it” and escaping his circumstances is a huge thing… same with the girl at the pet shop, any step she takes is a nearly unbearable risk… Creed has “made it” but would he exist if he lost it?

      • My favorite part… Rocky’s drunk friend is crushed when he doesn’t get to be on TV. (??) They nearly fall out over this. But then he cuts a deal to get the meat packing sign on Rocky’s jersey. The guy is about the most miserable person in cinema history… but he shows up to the fight dressed like a pimp. It’s weirdly awesome.

  5. One of my grandmothers used to say, “There’s only been one perfect person and you know what happened to him.” This usually came up when Sib or one of the cousins or I were acting uppity and better than we should have been, but it makes a good (if irreverent) reminder when I start writing a saint.

    • B. Durbin

      I’ve also heard, “Pray to Saint Joseph, because there have been only two perfect people in the world, and he had to deal with both of them.” 😀

  6. My favorite response to a story was a howl of outrage from the living room while I was making dinner. The story they were reading was backstory from a character they knew as a ghost from a roleplaying campaign I’d been running. They KNEW she died. And were still devastated by it. It still makes me giggle.

    I’m still working on getting back to that level of involvement. Maybe I’m just not feeling it but I also get the feeling that I’m overthinking it just a little bit.

  7. If I can’t make me cry… then how can I make the reader cry? (Yes, I’ve wept at parts of my books – I knew what was happening. I made it happen. I still couldn’t see the screen.

    • julieapascal

      I find that I cry… but it’s really hard to write the crying parts. I think that the author has to cry harder, longer than the reader will because writing is more involved and slower than reading. In a way I’m thinking… but I don’t want to write a SAD book, and it’s so hard for me to make bad things happen to characters that I like (or I wouldn’t write about them) and it actually helps a little bit to think that it’s not going to be quite as hard for the person reading it, and the events not quite as bad for someone who reads through that part in minutes while I was crying for hours.