Today’s guest post is by Patrick Cole:
When I first met Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, I was in high school and certainly not yet “fully baked.” In fact, my major emotional connection to the novel was not with Sydney Carton but with Lucy and Charles. They were so in love, and I just wanted there to be a romantic happy ending for them. Dickens did not disappoint me.
Of course, since that time, I have reread this novel two more times—once in college for an English Lit. class and once more because there is much to learn from Dickens’s writing.
To me, now that I am closer to coming out of the oven, Carton as a redemptive figure is one of the best in literature. And while many fiction writers do not have “Christlike” characters in their novels, the methods used by Dickens to establish that emotional connection are timeless and universal. Here are things I have learned that you can learn too.
- What’s the Backstory?
Readers cannot develop connections with characters unless they have the backstory that got them to where they are at the opening of your piece.
Backstories can help to establish empathy, understanding, and credibility, as long as they are done well.
Before you ever develop your protagonist in his/her current situation, spend some time developing a history that logically leads to the emotional and behavioral state in which they find themselves today. Never do this through a narrative. Provide that history through thoughts, behaviors, words and interactions with other characters.
It’s easy to see Sydney Carton’s backstory by his behaviors in the beginning of the tale—he is a drunk who feels worthless and inept, despite his stellar legal history. He has “fallen” and, though would like to redeem himself, cannot muster the strength and courage to pull his life together. He has no purpose.
- A Relatable Emotional State
Readers cannot “connect” with characters unless they can relate the emotions to their own lives. They do not necessarily have to be emotions that they have personally experienced, but they have to be credible and emotions with which a reader is at least familiar.
Fear, joy, hope, helplessness, anger, love, and dismay are all emotions that readers will have felt in their own lives.
However, when protagonists exhibit variations and/or extremes of these emotions, readers must still be able to relate. Extreme anger is rage; extreme love can be obsession. If those variations and extremes are developed correctly within a character, then readers will be able to relate them to people they know, to characters in a TV show, etc. This creates the emotional connection and understanding that an author wants. And it also creates characters who are memorable.
Sydney Carton has love that is unrequited. He will never “win” Lucy, but his love is so great that he wills himself to sacrifice his love for her sake. He begins to see love in a larger context. He loves someone else far more than he loves himself.
A mother reading this tale gets it. She loves her child more than she loves herself and understands the sacrifices that one is willing to make when that type of love is present.
The other important consideration here is credibility. You may have a character who operates from a certain moral compass. He becomes enraged by injustice, and that emotion remains consistent throughout your story. You may also have a character who changes her moral compass as the tale progresses. That change must also be credible, if you expect the reader to connect and empathize. Carton’s transformation was gradual and progressive as the plot was developed. The reader could go through this shift in emotions with him—it was a perfect transformation.
- Let Emotions of a Character Display Flaws
We all make mistakes. Often those mistakes occur because we operate on emotion rather than reason. We make impulsive decisions and act on those decisions without stepping back to allow rational thought to occur. Thus, we shoot off an angry email in the heat of the moment and damage a relationship or create problems that did not need to be.
Readers can relate to characters who act impulsively based upon their emotions at the moment. This is one of the reasons why I love Janet Evanovich’s character Stephanie Plum. She is so “real” to me—a single thrity-something protagonist whose emotional roller coaster is one of the most appealing aspects of the series. Evanovich is sometimes able to just use phrases correctly to reveal an entire emotion, as Stephanie struggles with the emotional conflict between attraction to the stable cop, Morelli, and the exciting, almost “forbidden” one to Ranger, the mysterious, dark figure who keeps popping up in her adventures. Stephanie’s impulsivity also leads her to take risks, sometimes with disastrous consequences, and we can all relate to that, of course.
Emotional Connections Are Made through Characters, Not Plot
When we think back upon the things that have made a piece of fiction memorable, we tend not to remember plot details. How many of us really remember all the detail of To Kill a Mockingbird? Or even A Tale of Two Cities? We remember the characters. We remember the emotional attachment that Atticus Finch has to justice; we remember Boo’s emotional struggle with the concept of equality and tolerance; we remember the final actions of Sydney Carton as he trades places with Charles Darney and consoles the young seamstress on the way to execution.
When writers of fiction can develop emotional connections between their readers and characters, they have a piece of writing that will be well received and remembered.
Reach into your own emotional history; reach into the emotional history of those you know; imbed those emotions into your characters and make it personal. When you make it personal to yourself, you make it personal to your readers too.
Patrick Cole is an entrepreneur and freelancer. He is also a contributing blogger for several websites. Patrick loves self-education and rock music. Connect with Patrick via Facebook, Google+ and Twitter