I drew a piece of art the other day meant to evoke emotions. It’s a pig (inside joke) riding a motorcycle up into the mountains. His labcoat flapping, he’s not got a care in the world, the lab left far behind him… The cartoon lives on the whiteboard outside my boss’s office, and it’s meant to inspire thoughts of summer and leaving work in the dust once we’re all headed home (and yes, he’s riding these warm summer days now). But as I stepped back to make sure I’d gotten proportions and such right, I was thinking about it in terms of writing, and making our writing appealing.

To grab our readers by the heartstrings, and give a gentle tug, is to keep them engaged with the story and wanting to know what happens next. We all have commonalities, from wanting to be outside rather than stuck in a windowless lab on a bright beautiful day, to saying AW! At the sight of a puppy or kitten. Stories that make us feel good are far more likely to have us returning to re-read them time and again than stories that made us feel grimy and gloomy. I was working on a list (always!) of books for girls, and I was noting that as with any list I curate, some of the titles are older than I am, but loved by generation after generation. Little Women, the Five Little Peppers, Black Beauty, and so many more. I loved all of them, and they among others were the ones Mom had us reading out loud to the family while I was growing up. But what is it about these tales we all connect with and love?

Oh, not all of us. I know people who didn’t like Little Women (and now that they are grown feminiztz, they get totally judgy of women from a different era who don’t act like they think they ought to have acted). I myself cannot get into Jane Austen although I know her work is almost universally beloved. But there are elements here which can be studied and pulled out for incorporation into our own work. Even if you’re writing Mil-SF, your work will be the better for plucking delicately at the heartstrings. After all, what is war for, but to defend the home fires? The reader is not going to be as sympathetic to the battles fought deep in space with no connection to ‘why?’ I can look at old photos of D-Day, as the 70th anniversary has just passed, and weep, because I am connecting to the men who died so valiantly, and to their mothers, widows, and sisters waiting back home who had no idea they were dying on that cold beach so far away.

Black Beauty, to pull an example from my list (Glittery Unicorns, intended for girls growing into teenagers), was written by Anna Sewell with the deliberate intent of evoking compassion toward animals and arousing anger toward the mistreatment of dumb beasts. The story doesn’t just tug on those strings, it gives them a riff like the bass guitarist in a rock band. Personally, although I loved the book as a girl, even then I found it a bit preachy, and now I find it too saccharine for my taste. It cloys in the mouth… I had to have a respirator fit test for work not long ago, and as part of the test I was in a hood with the nurse puffing powdered saccharine in the air and asking if I could taste it yet. Hoo, boy, coff hack, sp… no, can’t spit. Swallow. Eww! That stuff clings and clings. Which is not the reaction you want readers to have to your story.

I’m not talking about adding sweetness to your story, not entirely. Certainly not the artificial, forced kind that you’ll find in books like Black Beauty and some of the children’s fodder from the 1800s. Twaddle doesn’t become a classic read. I forget who called it ‘twee’ but that’s just what it is. Too sweet for being appetizing. No, I’m talking about playing on the reader’s connections to the book. The reader identifies with the main character, usually. Sometimes they connect more to a side character. Develop your secondary characters enough, and you’ll be surprised which ones become fan favorites and they ask for more of them. Everyone’s heartstrings are shaped a little different. Like harps of all tones and sizes.




  1. Hmm. I read several of the Black Beauty (no wait, it was the Black Stallion, written by Walter Farley) books, and did not have crumbling molars at all. Wonder what was the diff?

    1. Black Stallion was a fun story about a boy and his horse. I loved those books as a girl (I was a VERY horsey girl, had several horses and ponies up until age 15). Black Beauty was a story written about the abuse of a Noble Beast and was deliberately framed to evoke pity and anger against the abusers: in other words, message fiction, with a large helping of sugar to help the medicine go down.

      1. I’ll give her this, she put enough sugar in it that the medicine DID go down, at least when I was a pre-teen. I’ve little desire to revisit it, but I enjoyed it very much back then. Then again, I read it more as the ‘adventures of a horse’ not ‘how horrible these practices were.’ Today’s message fic crowd could still take pointers.

        1. I also read Black Beauty as Adventures of a Horse, and, as a rather horsey girl myself (do you have to shy at everything? Including your stable mate?) I guess missed the point pretty well entirely. Of course horses must wear blinders, since half of them are convinced that an 8″x11″ peice of paper is a horse devouring monster come to steal their souls! But I was reading in the automobile, which had long since replaced all the horses of Black Beauty’s era, as well, so pulling coal carts? Quaint.

          I thought it much the same as Albert Payson Terhune’s dog stories.

      2. Aren’t ALL girls at some point horsey girls? Even for a boy. having a large animal between your legs and responding to your commands is a sensual, if not actually an erotic experience. (I’ve had cowgirls confide in me, telling me that riding a horse was indeed even more enjoyable.)

        I’ll take your review of BB as an advisory that I need not go back and read them to see what I missed.

        1. I’m pretty sure all little girls are born with pony-shaped holes in their hearts. My own little girl, despite being too young to talk, eagerly went up to the TV this morning when she saw the Belmont races on and started pointing at the horses and chatting excitedly. She also has an obsession with the little polo pony logo on her dad’s Ralph Lauren bathrobe.

      3. Oh… did you ever read Joyce Ballou Gregorian’s books? Or Joy Chant’s Grey Mane of Morning?

        You might still like them a lot!

        Now I want to make a Pony Mad fantasy list.

        Can anyone think of any equivalent SF?

  2. One of the favorite characters that I’ve created started as a joke. I had been binge-watching Hellraiser movies (and there are about a dozen of them, most really bad) and started thinking about the people who I’ve known personally who were seriously into the leather BDSM lifestyle. The fact is that most of them are huge dorks. So I came up with the idea of “Exquisite”, who is essentially one of Clive Barker’s Cenobites with the personality and manners of the stereotypical SF fan geek.

    It was a funny idea, and I really loved writing him. Over the course of the books, though, he became one of my favorite characters, because he really did have a kind heart and a sweet manner underneath his leather and chains. I mean, how can you not love a diabolical undead monster who invites people to come over and play Risk?

    Then, in my third novel, Exquisite’s lover dies, and he delivers a long eulogy for him. it’s a scene that took me by surprise, I cried when I wrote it and I still cry when I reread it. I hadn’t planned for it to be as emotional as it is, it just kind of happened that way. I let the character talk and that’s what came out.

      1. They’re.. odd. A number of the sequels seem to be completely unrelated films that have random images of Lament boxes and Pinhead cut in at random intervals. They remind me of the way Hong Kong action films are repackaged for American running time, just take a half hour film and cut it into some other half hour film that has nothing to do with the first one.

  3. Develop your secondary characters enough, and you’ll be surprised which ones become fan favorites and they ask for more of them.

    *chuckle* I don’t think David Eddings expected Silk to be a favorite character – but he was a favorite of mine (Polgara too, and Belgarath); but he was quite the fun supporting character!

    On that note as well, apparently Spock being a huge fan draw was somewhat of a surprise.

    1. “What was [antagonist character] doing?”
      “Trying to fly, last I saw him.”
      “Did it work?”
      “He’s still got some time.” *looks over cliffside* “Does bouncing count?”
      “Then I guess not.”

      With dialogue like that, how can you not love Silk?

  4. I’m discovering that I want to tell the stories of too many of my secondary characters, despite the fact that (in-story) they have barely existed for two months.

    Like Viola Reid, whom is the very perfect ideal of a Scottish housekeeper, from her Marshmallow Hell way of hugging people to firmly disciplining her charges and being done with it to her very sensually robust sense of humor…she’s the best friend of any lad or lady that needs one then and there. And, as the first thief that found out that tried to break into their house, she would have no issues with hitting them over the head with a skillet, quickly slitting their throat in proper Parthan style (through the neck, pivoting the blade out on the vertebra), dumping the body, and cleaning up the mess to the point where a CSI team wouldn’t find a thing.

    Or, Kiokyo Sato, whom is an utter professional when her hair is up and utterly beautiful when her hair is down. Calling her a “Japanese James Bond” will have her look at you with a bird-of-prey curiosity and her replying, “Perhaps Pierce Brosnan or Timothy Dalton, but not Roger Moore. I always thought of myself more of Tomoe Gozen with a bit of Murasaki Shikibu.” Very nearly gets the main character in trouble for her birthday (first, she didn’t know that the club they were in was a yakuza hostess club, and second was that a yuki-onna was hutning there, and the third was that the yuki-onna was blackmailing the yakuza into hiding her kills), but entirely innocently.

    Finally, we have Charles Parker. If you were to roll David Tennant and Milo Anderson in a single lovable Welsh body, you’d have Charles. A happy, cheerful nerd that knows way too many ways to do damage with things that go “bang”, “boom”, or “bing.” He’s the guy that keeps up their IT systems and has access to all the interesting toys. When he isn’t working on guns or explosives or doing things that the BATF and the NY State Police would be worried about, he hunts down spammers and ransomware creators online and (figuratively) blows their computers up.

    (Seriously, the incident involving Kiokyo is going to take up maybe three paragraphs in the first novel. I’m already writing the novella of what happened.)

    1. Won’t Kiokyo Sato call herself “Jane Bond”? 😉

      1. She would politely point out that she’s not the re-skinning of another legend, but the seed of her own legend. Kiokyo will create her own legacy, a history that is independent of other legends.

        1. LOL 😆

          In a recent book I read, a Japanese shapeshifter while in female form (“he” also has a male form) tells the MC that she’s “Jane Bond” right now. 😀

  5. This article is timely in a way since one of the series of books I love very much is “The Warlock” series by Christopher Stasheff, alas it is with a sad heart that I pass this on, According to his son, Edward, Christopher Stasheff is in his last days suffering from Parkinson’s and not expected to last more than 2 weeks. https://www.facebook.com/edward.stasheff?hc_ref=ARSXi4m5eqnUn3TcfqoSV2TEIb8BoW5ra3fAtvgfJjjd3J5eD3pF5Owstb6GXFFji-Q&fref=nf&hc_location=group

    1. We were deeply saddened to hear this. I had the privilege of meeting him not long ago, and he graciously allowed me to interview him. He is a gentleman and a wonderful writer who has left a legacy worth celebrating.

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