Before diving right in, I wanted to take a second to say how much I appreciate each and every one of you. Linking’s release day was awesome; it felt so good to put something (even a short-story-something) out into the universe again after such a long haitus, and part of what made that feel so great was all of you: my wonderful readers who cheered me on, and shared the link, and wrote reviews, asked questions, and told their friends. You’re all the best.
Now, here it is, the final installment of my Your Questions Answered series. That said, this has been such a blast! So, feel free to ask me questions anytime! I’ll answer them for certain, I promise.
Q.5: I heard once that the first thing you have to do as a writer is make the reader care. How do you make readers care?
A.5: Oh man, this is a big question. That’s my initial reaction when I read it, which is probably why I saved it for last. But, really, when I stop and think about it, the answer is pretty simple: characters are what make the readers care, at least in the kind of stories I tell. I have always written, and been most interested in reading, character-driven fiction. So, the short answer is that I make readers care by writing characters that they can care about.
But how do you do that?
The answer to this is more complicated–but also sort of flippant. Frankly, I don’t know if I do. And, in all honesty, nobody does–not really. I write characters that I relate to (I’ve even written characters that I have a hard time relating to until I get to know them,) but at the end of the day, whether that character resonates with readers is anybody’s guess. Who are these mysterious “readers” anyway? They’re all of you reading this, and me, and you over there, and the lady sitting across from me on the bus, and everyone in between. Genre helps to narrow the pool of possible readers, which in turn narrows the audience any given character needs to be relatable to, but even then, it’s a huge misstep to think that because you write a particular genre you know what kind of character fans of that genre will find relatable. On the other side of the coin, if you try to make your characters relatable to too wide an audience, they end up flat and boring.
The trick is to give the reader some details up front so they can connect with this character as soon as possible. It doesn’t have to be a connection derived from a common experience or circumstance–it can be a detail that sparks compassion, concern, curiosity, or some other emotion. It can be linked to physicality, in how you describe the character’s appearance (this is a tricky one–writers beware!) or clues can be dropped within a character’s own inner monolog–what s/he takes note of, his/her impressions of other people, etc.
This questions got me curious, so I did an audit of the opening scenes of Shift, Harbinger, and Augury. Read on if you want to nerd-out on writing stuff. 🙂
SHIFT; relatable circumstance/experience: everyone has been caught daydreaming in a boring class.
Oh my lord, how long can one man drone on about The Red Scare?
As interesting, and absolutely pivotal to modern history as McCarthy and ‘The Red Scare’ is, it does not make for captivating lectures during the last class of the day, just one week before the end of the school year.
History for the last class of the day…as if sixth period didn’t drag on long enough, even when it was something cool like Art or English. But History. Groan.
Greg Hinkley shifted impatiently in the desk in front of mine. At least I knew I wasn’t suffering alone. And I could easily look at the back of his neck all day…that place where his hair met his smooth, perfect skin and disappeared under the collar of his t-shirt only to meet his broad…
I came out of my ill-timed mental vacation to find Mr. Fletcher and most of the class staring at me.
We now also know that Leah is relatively book-smart (“as interesting and absolutely pivotal to modern history…”) She has a crush on this Greg Hinkley guy (ah, how quickly that is remedied later in the book!) which makes the reader wonder what’s up with this guy? Does he also like Leah? Is she popular? etc.
Augury, on the other hand, takes a completely different approach:
Luceam stood under the water as it rushed from the shower head in needle-sharp streams. She avoided the bruise under her left eye, and the sore bit of muscle and bone on the right side of her ribs, instead choosing to keep her back to the spray. Leaning her head back, her eyes closed as the water spilled over her hair and ran down her face. It drowned out any noise around her but the rush of the shower, the hum of the pressure in the pipes, the whoosh of the water as it filled her ears.
Then an unwelcome voice. One she could not drown out nor ignore no matter how she tried. “Love, dinner will be ready in thirty minutes.” It was hard, nigh impossible to ignore someone’s voice when they sent it straight into your mind, disguised as a thought.
This is strumming the concern/curiosity string. Why does Luceam have bruises? Even the needle-sharp streams from the shower head take something that should be comforting and make it unpleasant. Then a voice calling her “Love” that intrudes her thoughts–it all paints a picture that feels pretty yucky. Assuming the reader has read Harbinger, they already care to know what became of Luceam due to her part in that first book; if they haven’t they would (hopefully) care now, after reading something that makes you wonder if this girl is being mistreated/abused.
By contrast, Harbinger takes a third approach, going straight into action, with very little character development:
I sat in the small, familiar room—without enough space to stand and barely enough room to sit erect—surrounded by boxes full of items like old toys and keepsakes, items too sentimental to abandon; which was ironic, since I was about to do that very thing–abandon them.
The boxes muffled the sound of my breathing, which was becoming increasingly difficult to keep slow and steady. I hated small spaces. Two boxes in this tiny room were of specific importance. Non-descript, but vividly familiar, they contained everything needed to begin a new life, should that become necessary. These boxes were placed near a trap door in the floor, invisible to the unknowing eye, designed to lock and seal permanently shut, leaving no traces of its existence. A part of me always hoped I’d never have to use that particular feature. Should its use become necessary, I would never be able to come back through the door, leaving forever the life I knew so well. My safety depended on the door and the world to which it led, being undetectable. I knew it was wishful thinking to hope I’d never have to use it; we all knew it was only a matter of time.
We know this girl dislikes small spaces, that she’s hiding from someone, and that she might have to abandon her home. That’s it. The plan here is to make the reader care by pushing them into a fantastic scenario along with this character. What world does the door lead to? Who is she running from? How does the door seal permanently shut? These questions will (hopefully) keep the reader reading until more character details are revealed.