Okay, just realized that this post’s title could come across rather in a different way than intended, but bear with me here, people. What I’m referring to is emotion and writing that evokes an emotional response, that wrenches your gut and makes you weep or laugh out loud. That’s what I aspire to produce so much of the time, but achieve only part of it. I frequently wonder what makes certain movies or stories so emotionally satisfying and others flat or just plain annoying.
I’ve been following Doctor Who for a few years now and haven’t been entirely satisfied with the newest season until the last episode. When Vincent Van Gogh is transported to the present-day Musée d’Orsay and sees his paintings on display, hears how influential his work has been, he’s moved to tears. And I cried right along with him, feeling that profound joy at knowing one’s work has made a difference. In one short episode, I developed a connection to him and felt much of what he felt–empathy, in other words.
That’s what I think makes for great stories, that strong connection to and investment in what happens to the characters, particularly the protagonist(s) or “good guys.” How many times have you sat through a horror movie with vapid, flat, one-dimensional characters that you don’t care about? I’ve sometimes found myself rooting for the monster instead because I actually had feelings about it!
So how do you evoke feelings for and about your characters? I’m no expert, but I can speak from my own experience, both as a reader and as someone who trained to be a psychologist. Making what a character experiences something that readers can relate to seems important. Losing a loved one, especially when we as readers have come to love that person too, feels like a small death of our own hearts…and sometimes not so small. When a writer allows him- or herself to fully experience their own emotions and allows characters to be themselves, be real people with flaws and weaknesses and desires, those feelings tend to come across on the page and move us as well.
There have been times in the past when I’ve cried or been incredibly happy for a protagonist in a movie or a book, and certain other people boggle at the sight. “What in the world are you crying for,” they say, “it’s not as if they’re real people!” I beg to differ. For me, they’re very real. All stories profit from suspension of disbelief, and when I’m presented with someone who could be real, fully rounded and believable, I fall for it and believe they really are. And I feel accordingly.
So maybe, in the most roundabout of ways, what I’m trying to say is that my job, as a writer, is to help my reader clap their hands and believe in fairies so that the magic doesn’t die. We all know that the world encourages us to be practical, to believe in only what we can see, hear, and touch, and that the ability to imagine dwindles as a result. Perhaps that’s our task, as writers–to break the wicked spell of disbelief and breathe life back into our readers, kissing them awake gently sometimes and beating out a thunderous tattoo in their sleeping ears at others.
So what I want to know is, can you feel me now? I sure hope so. Otherwise, prepare for delicate kisses, soft and light as butterfly wings, or a big bass drum to rouse you from your slumber. I won’t spoil the surprise of which one it will be…it’s better this way, don’t you think?