Writing Connection: The Connection of Emotional Readers
by Samantha Kendrick
Writing Center Consultant
Have you ever read a really good book? I mean a really good book? The kind of book where you feel like your world completely changed after finishing the story? The kind of book where you are devastated after it ends? The kind of book where you feel complete and utter joy with the resolution of the characters? Have you ever thought about why that book was so good? What about it shattered your world or caused utter devastation? What about it made you want to read it over and over again, or made you wish it never ended? The answer is simple and right in front of your face; it is the explanation for why you cry at a story, why you heart jumps for joy when a character succeeds, and why you get angry at the antagonist…you get emotionally involved with the story whether you want to or not. The major question is why does this happen; why can’t we help it?
Let’s first examine the role of characters in an emotionally involved story. The difference between a sympathetic character and an empathetic character must first be distinguished. A sympathetic character is someone that we like, someone that we can cheer for but aren’t too devastated if the situation doesn’t end up in his/her favor. An empathetic character, on the other hand, is someone who we understand, someone we can relate to. Empathetic characters touch our hearts in a place that is deeply personal; a sympathetic character cannot break down this barrier. Oftentimes, you, the writer of a story, intentionally structures the characters in a way that there is an obvious empathetic character and then there are subsequent sympathetic characters that fall underneath the empathetic character. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy can be described as two of the empathetic characters. In the mean time, each of Elizabeth’s sisters, her dad, and Charles Bingley can be described as the sympathetic characters; they each have traits and play roles that we, the readers, may enjoy, but they are not given a prominent enough role in the novel to act as empathetic characters. I would even venture to say that a majority of the time, the empathetic characters often act as the main characters in a story, but not always. Along the same lines, not all characters need to be sympathetic; some can acts as simple plot movers or background characters.
Now, we all know that you can’t simply have well-developed characters and call it a story. You need to create a plot—a narrative creation, fall, and redemption, in other words. The function of the plot is to draw us, the readers, into the characterization. The plot takes the situation that the characters are in and grants the characters a freedom to respond in whatever way they wish. This freedom then allows us to follow the characters throughout their stories and make connections with them based off of the decisions they make in their various situations. As a result, we, the readers, start asking ourselves questions about the characters: Did they make the right choice? Is that what I would’ve done? Did they even consider the other people in their lives when making their decision? How could they be so cruel!? If we are asking ourselves these questions, congratulations! You have hooked us, my friend. The readers have now become one with your story and have officially bonded with the character(s).
Another reason that we, the readers, bond with characters in a novel is simply because we, as humans, are relational beings. We thrive off of relationships with other people, so it makes sense that we would connect to relationships within a story between the characters. Fictional or not, the human’s intention is to form a relationship with another being. In fact, some find it much simpler to form a sort of relationship with a fictional character as opposed to a real-life person for various personal reasons. In a sense, we all form relationships with characters that we connect with in a story. We weep with them, rejoice with them, rage with them, and follow them down their rabbit trail of internal dialogue. When we follow their train of thought, we are often led to a greater understanding of their reasoning behind certain actions, as well as their innermost personal thoughts, which form the strongest connection with the reader.
Now, how do you go about writing in a way that allows us, the readers, to emotionally connect with your work? First, construct a serious or dramatic plot; comedy is a difficult genre to produce a thoughtful, emotional connection with. Second, identify with your own characters. The only way to ensure that the readers emotionally connect to your characters is if you are able to connect to the character yourself. Third, identify your target audience; depending on your audience, emotional connection may or may not occur. For example, the film Prisoners (2013) is clearly geared towards parents, as it’s main purpose is to provoke them to think about how far they would go for the safety of their children. Obviously, due to the nature of the plot and empathetic characters (who were also parents), this film provokes an emotional reaction from mainly the adults who have children. It is important to identify your target audience because you should not expect the same degree of emotional reaction from those who are not in the same stage of life as from those to whom you are writing for. Don’t get me wrong, I had quite a severe reaction towards Prisoners (2013), but it was not necessarily so much of an emotional attachment as it was more of an objective feeling of disgust.
You may be asking yourself, why is this important? Well, if you ever intend to write a poem, short story, screen play, or novel, and you want your readers to remember it beyond the next five minutes after finishing it, we must have an emotional connection to at least one of the characters. Several other methods exist that you, as the writer, can choose from when attempting to create a memorable work, and this method of establishing an emotional connection is just one of them.
The purpose of all of this exploration is that you will need to understand the importance of developing emotional characters when trying to produce both fictional and creative nonfictional pieces of literature. If you want your piece to sell and be cherished by many, the emotional connection established between character and reader should be one of your top writing priorities, if not the very top priority.
Samantha Kendrick is a family and child psychology major with an English minor. She is hoping to one day become a marriage and family therapist, but she is excited to see what God has planned for her. She is from Las Vegas, which isn’t that awesome, she will assure you. She loves reading Freshman Writing papers, so all of you in that class, please come see her! A bit of personal information about her: She is in love with Tyler Knott Gregson’s work, greatly appreciates green tea and lavender, and absolutely adores elephants. To make a Writing Center consultation appointment with Samantha click here.