Cold Characters, Dead Copy

How do you entice readers to care about your protagonist? To care enough to sit down and read your story? To take time away from other activities or tasks to read your story to its ending?

Readers have innumerable alternatives to occupy their leisure time, even if it’s just checking their phones for new text messages. There’s no incentive for them to read fiction unless they’re intrigued by a story’s premise or they bond with a protagonist.

Which brings me back to my opening question:  how is that bond established and how is it maintained?

Several elements factor into successful character design, but the detail that functions best in bringing a character alive and thereby catching reader attention is that character’s feelings.

Emotions make all the difference.

Consider this example:

The man in the shapeless purple hoodie drew an enormous knife–somewhat bigger than a bowie, almost machete sized.

Luke sized him up, taking note of the crazed desperation in the man’s eyes. Luke hesitated a moment, then smiled. “Dude, you should be careful with that.”

Luke may be smiling, but a reader won’t know if he’s baring his teeth in nervous fear or if he’s even crazier than Purple Hoodie. His emotional reaction is odd, incomprehensible, and on the surface. We experience no perceptions or internalizations from Luke’s viewpoint. It’s hard, if not impossible, to care about him.

Let’s try again:

The man in the shapeless purple hoodie drew an enormous knife–somewhat bigger than a bowie, almost machete sized.

Luke’s breath stilled in his throat. He knew better than to freeze, much less show any fear, but time seemed to slow around him. He noticed everything, from the tremors in Purple Hoodie’s hands to the twitching of the man’s mouth. Luke shifted his weight imperceptibly to the balls of his feet, gauging his chances of survival if the guy went berserk and attacked. Over and over, Luke told himself to stay calm, to keep thinking, to ignore the strangling sensation knotting his windpipe. His palms were sweating, and the air seemed to have left the room.

“Dude,” he whispered, trying without success to sound confident, “you should be careful with that.”

In Version 2, we don’t know much about Luke beyond his fear and how he’s trying not to panic. But his emotion has put some life into him. Version 2 is more interesting than Version 1.

Here’s another example:

The baseball bat swung at Jeff in a blur, cracking across his forearm before he could react. Swearing, Jeff dropped to the ground, then pushed himself back onto his feet. He kicked at his assailant’s shins, but with a laugh the attacker spun around and ran into the dark alley.

Gee, Jeff just received a blow that knocked him off his feet, but it doesn’t slow him down a moment. Does Jeff have super-human powers? Why doesn’t he feel any pain? A writer of this kind of superficial copy might believe readers will imagine what’s left out. Instead, readers will feel indifference and very little sympathy.

Let’s try again:

The baseball bat swung at Jeff in a blur, cracking across his forearm before he could react. Agony flared from his wrist to his shoulder. Jeff cried out, even as he lost his balance and fell. Hitting the ground jolted his arm, bringing another wave of pain that sent chills through his body. His forehead beaded with sweat. Gasping for breath, he curled himself around his injured arm and tried not to whimper. Another blow thudded into his shoulder, then his hip.

Jeff swore under his breath, feeling like he might throw up. His arm had to be broken. But if he continued lying here, he would probably be beaten to a pulp. As soon as he could catch his breath, he rolled over and pushed himself to his knees. He slapped the next blow aside, deflecting it, although the smack of wood against his palm stung hard.

Version 2 is running much longer, isn’t it? I haven’t even gotten Jeff back on his feet, much less fighting back enough to send the assailant running into the shadows.

But do you see how the internalized reactions, emotions, and physical sensations have brought Jeff to life? In Version 1, he’s a cartoon figure. His lack of reaction to a forceful blow creates a sense of unreality. The disconnection between being struck and feeling anything from it overrides any potential excitement in the action.

Without Jeff’s feelings, readers are detached from what’s happening. And if they’re detached, how can they care?

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Cold Characters, Dead Copy

  1. Nathan

    I needed this. Thanks, Prof!

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