I’ve often wondered why one book will grab me by the heart and soul and never let go, while another one fails to do so, even when both stories entertain me. For me, at least, it’s simple: it’s all about the characters.
The books that endure in my mind long after I’ve read them, which compel me to read them a second time, or a third, or more, are those with characters that capture not just my imagination, but my love. Or hate. Yes, I even love—err… hate—some truly nasty bad guys. (Come on! So do you. Tell the truth.) Yet I need at least one character to feel like family, or a good friend, or the person I always wanted to know.
I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird four times, not only because Harper Lee crafted this compelling story in such a readable style, but because, at some point, I end up missing Atticus and Scout, and I just have to visit them again. I’ve read Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War four times, because I can easily imagine his protagonist, Allessandro Giuliani, as the grandfather I never had. I just love that old guy.
I’ve read John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, because I feel for Tom and Ma, for Rose of Sharon and Casey. I hunger with them, suffer with them through their ungodly ordeal, cry with them at their devastating loss. Hell, I can even smell them. I know Tom’s voice, and Ma’s too. I’ve spoken them aloud as I’ve read some of my favorite exchanges. I’ve lived them.
Therein hides the secret for every writer: if you want your readers to live your characters, you must first do so. You must crawl inside their hearts and minds. You must be them.
Some writers can achieve that silently, in perfect stillness, without ever acting out the characters. At least, that’s the rumor. I can’t. I’ve tried, but there always seems to be a little something missing. Not until I seclude myself in a quiet spot, where I needn’t worry about making a fool of myself, as I perform the character as though auditioning for the role of a lifetime, can I truly capture the essence of my characters.
If I can’t hear the distinctiveness of a character’s voice, I’ve failed. If I don’t automatically adopt the body language that would come naturally to the character in a given circumstance, and if I fail to convey that body language on the page, I’ve failed. If I don’t chuckle when the character would laugh, or my eyes don’t water slightly when the character would cry, or my gut doesn’t clench when the character would fear for his life, I’ve failed.
Not until I live the character do I find those instances where I failed, and so create the remedy. If I want to punch my readers in the gut and twist them into a whirlwind of emotions, I must first do so to myself. If I can’t feel it, how can I expect my readers to feel it?
If you’re uncertain of the strength of your characters, try acting them out. If it sounds silly, that’s because it’s a little embarrassing to you, because you’re not a natural performer. No worries. Just find a quiet, secluded place to do it. Fiction is the art of make-believe anyway, so acting it out should come naturally to you, so long as you don’t have that pesky, embarrassing audience. Try it. I guarantee that if you commit to it, you’ll hear and feel things that escape you when merely reading the words.
Come on! What do you have to lose?
‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).