What stirs your character’s heart? Beyond the challenges of overcoming obstacles and forging ahead toward the story goal, what does your protagonist care about? What matters to this individual you’re trying to create from the dust and cobwebs of your imagination?
In Majorie Rawlings’s classic YA novel, THE YEARLING, a young boy adopts an orphaned fawn as a pet despite his father’s objections. The story is poignant and almost unbearably tragic. As we read the first few chapters we want to cry out a warning to this boy: “Don’t lose your heart! Don’t fall in love with this little deer! You’re going to be hurt!” But the boy continues, unable to hear us, and of course his heart is broken.
But isn’t that the point?
Your characters must be able to feel intensely. They must have something they love or yearn for, something they’re willing to risk their emotions for. They cannot — indeed, they must not — freeze their heart and protect it from harm. Otherwise, what have we to write about?
Giving them something to protect or believe in or honor or yearn for also helps to bring them alive. Readers can empathize with the abused, emotionally damaged boy Georgie — protagonist of THE LOTTERY ROSE by Irene Hunt — because he loves a sickly little potted rose bush that he wins in a contest. The plant symbolizes Georgie’s one chance to remain a human being. It’s his hope, the only thing he can care about. But how vividly it brings him to life on the page! It enables readers to find common ground with him despite his problems.
In the old movie classic MRS. MINIVER, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, there’s a wonderful minor character in the story — the man who sells tickets at the train station and grows roses as a hobby. He’s developed a magnificent rose that he names for Mrs. Miniver, and he enters it in the local flower show. And when he wins the prize for the best rose, he’s so shocked and stunned he hardly knows what’s happened to him. And his emotions — his pride and disbelief, his sense of dawning pride and accomplishment — make him vivid and endearing. We see a man living a humble life of no special significance, yet his passion for gardening and roses makes him stand out … even for a short time.
And, most importantly of all, when a character cares for something — thereby becoming vulnerable and human and sympathetic — what in the story is going to jeopardize it?