“Oh yes, dear girl. The Earl Gray, if you please.”
When I think about killing off my favorite character, or throwing a plot twist in the story that will utterly destroy my lead, bring them close to death or in general fuck up their world, I smile quietly to myself and plan my next date with Satan. He and I are close, he has tea with me whenever I’d like.
I also think of Neil Gaiman, because goddamnit Gaiman, I still haven’t been able to get all the way through Anansi Boys without yelling at the book. I feel for Charlie, and fuck that Spider guy. That guy is a dick. But for all my cursing and wailing and irritation, I can’t help but want to find Neil and hug him because he can really throw a story together.
No, really. Ever read Stardust? Neverwhere? Do it. Stop whatever you’re doing right now and go read them. But first, watch the movie Stardust, then read the book. Your world will never be the same (and not just because Robert De Niro plays a cross-dressing pirate named “Shakespeare”).
More to the point: I want to inspire that same kind of emotion in readers. I want them to scream at the book and curse my name and root for my characters; cry when my characters die (come on, Tonks and Lupin – I bawled), cheer when they succeed and read with undiluted fervor when the action unfolds. I want them to feel.
But how do you make people feel? I’m not so sure I’m the person to fully answer this question, since I’m still learning myself, but I know this: the characters are key. If they feel, the people reading about it should feel. You hope. I mean, there’s more to it than that, but here are 4 things that I find to be absolutely necessary to kicking people in the feels:
Number one: Make compelling characters. Your characters represent people – people are not 1 dimensional. They should have flaws and quirks and favorite foods. They aren’t perfect, they should make mistakes. They should have something at their core that is good, some nugget of true-gold hero that makes people root for them, but it can be surrounded by a peeling, crusty layer of grime. You just have to be able to get to the ooey-gooey caramel filled center. You have to see it peeking through the cracks. Otherwise, why the fuck are we rooting for them to win?
A favorite author of mine, Chuck Wendig, often talks about Die Hard and John McClain’s struggles and who he is as a character. I recently watched Die Hard so…takes a page out of Wendig’s book… Let’s take a gander at John. Sure, he might not be the crustiest crab out there, but he’s got issues – he’s married to his job and it contributed to screwing over his actual marriage, he’s kind of an asshole and a cocky mo-fo, but deep down at his core there’s this bright, shining nugget of goodness. He’s compelling. You want to root for him, even though you may not agree with his life choices. And if you want to really hear about some of the awesomeness that is Die Hard as it relates to storytelling, read Wendig’s blog from the linky-link above. Actually, you should probably just read his blog (and his books) anyway – he’s brilliant.
Numero Dos: Bad guys are people, too. The bad guy can’t be just “bad” – there should be more to it than that. The bad guy wants things too – maybe they want a big ass diamond, so they steal it. But why do they want the diamond? They can’t just want it “because” – there must be a purpose. Maybe they want it to power a machine they created to bring their dead lover back to life. Mr. Freeze, anyone? I know the movie sucked dishwater compared to some of the other Batman films but Mr. Freeze was a well-rounded character. Give the baddy a nougat-core of goodness and he or she will be a more interesting character and drive the plot in different and unique ways. Remember: people do things for a reason, even misguided reasons, and bad guys are people, too.
Nummer Drei: Make them suffer. No, really. Have lunch with Satan – invite him for a sleep over if you have to, but learn how to make your characters suffer. Life isn’t all unicorns pooping marshmallows and Scottish Fold kittens sliding down rainbows into your open and waiting arms. Life includes pain and suffering and loss. No one wants to read a story where there isn’t any conflict, it would be boring as hell – conflict is what drives the story! So by all means, burn your characters at the stake if you have to. Strap them to a rocket and blast them 10 AUs away from the object of their desire, then litter their path back with flesh eating, acid-spitting aliens and sharp objects and boy scouts peddling things at every door. Peel the band aid off slowly; make them feel every hair you pluck.
The Final Four: Characters did not just spring out of the ether fully baked. Write back story for your characters, good guys and bad guys. Give them a history and see through their lens – it will not only help you connect with them (which, btw, will help you write their story), but it will make them – yes, you guessed it – more compelling. People don’t pop out of the uterus as adults, fully developed with a hardwired moral code – we have to grow up. We have to have lives and experiences that shape us and, good or bad, these experiences make us who we are. Your characters should be the same way. Develop them – give them a past.
So, how do YOU make people feel? Sharing is caring. And if you need Satan’s number, I have it around here somewhere. Stay Shiny.