Writing Tips #168:How to Make the Reader Give A Damn.
Tips by: Naomi
Originally posted on: Confessions of an Opinionated Book Geek.
Here’s the thing about Harry Potter. Sure, the magic is great, the villain frightening and the action hard to look away from. But, do you know what really made J.K. Rowling’s series sell billions of copies? We cared about Harry Potter. From the moment that kid is introduced underneath that staircase, we wanted more. We love Hermonie and Ron, not only, because they are the loyal, amazing and fierce best friend a boy ever had, it’s because they love Harry. Those two kids became his family. Gave him somewhere to belong and finally someone remembered that kids birthday. J.K. Rowling discovered a secret that other authors are struggling with. It’s not just about the fancy world and the cool tricks. It’s about making the audience care in the most realistic, honest and authentic way.
When I was 15, I took my first film class and made my first film. I wanted to make an emotional drama that would pull my audience in, so I wrote a story about a mother who could not connect with her adopted daughter. It was bad. Horrible. I knew nothing about adoption, what it means to be a mother or even to be a kid who cannot connect to her parent. I didn’t even bother to look into how the adoption processes works. I had an an idea about how I wanted my audience to react and because of that I failed. It took me years to realize that if I write a story I really want to tell and made my characters relatable then the audience will be pulled in. Without manipulation.
So here are some thing’s I have learned over the years.
1. No tricks or gimmicks, just life.
Authors today seem to think that their characters have to have messed up pasts in order to make us care. Parents are often abusive, nonexistent or dead. Here’s another thing about Harry Potter. Harry’s parents are not just dead, they are dead, because they were warriors. Because they stood against evil and because Harry’s mother sacrificed herself to save her son. Harry’s parents being dead was used as more than a gimmick to make him an orphan. The death of those two characters resonates through out the series. The one action of killing the Potters set off a sequence of events that explains the heroes, the villains and the reasoning behind everything that happens.
This is important. Sure, we feel for Harry, because he’s an orphan, but he’s not an orphan just so that we can feel. It’s not pure manipulation. There is reasoning and plot points surrounding his not having living parents.
Many authors do not get this. They think “oh we’ll make him alone and the reader will feel bad.” But, guess what? Readers are not stupid. We know when we’re being manipulated, when something does not make sense and worse when something does not work.
Don’t try to manipulate your audiences feelings. Just write a story and give your characters a back story that will work for them and the story you are trying to tell.
2. Don’t try so hard to make your characters unique.
Not everyone can be Buffy. Not everyone can be the hero, the chosen one, the savior. Harry Potter is the boy who lived, but Neville could have easily have been the boy who lived. There is nothing really special about Harry. He’s a normal kid that circumstances happen to and because of that he has to rise above. For some reason, authors seem to think that amazing things don’t happen to normal people. For some reasons characters have to be outcasts. They have to be on the outside looking in and lonely. Why?
Also, let me explain what does not make a person unique. A girl who does not wear make-up and prefers to play football with the boys is not unique. Plenty of girls prefer to just hang out in sneakers instead of wearing heels. That does not mean she is special and it doesn’t mean that girls who wear heels are stupid or a part of some kind of machine. The girl in heels is just as intelligent as the girl in sneakers. You know what else doesn’t make people stand out? The guy who wears a leather jacket and plays guitar. Stop taking normal activities and dress and making a chosen one.
Why can’t your heroine be a cheerleader? Why can’t your hero be the student body president? Why can’t your main characters have more than one friend and actually go out on the weekends? Why do they have to be lonely, awkward freaks? Because let me tell you, Tumblr is an example of loner awkward kids, finding each other. Am I wrong? Haven’t you read a post and thought “wow, I get this person!” Sometimes, it would be cool to open up a book and read about something extraordinary happening to a normal person without the author trying to convince me they exist in a plain higher than the rest of us.
3. Make sure all of your events are authentic to your story.
So, I was reading this awful book recently and it’s about a girl who was abused by her dad and falls in love with the boy next door. The Dad disappears for awhile and then shows up years later with a new family and the same obsession with his daughter. The boyfriend beats the hell out of the dad and for some reason the dad is like “i will press charges against your boyfriend, unless you come to my house and hang out with me alone.” Ok, we all know what the perv dad is thinking, but what plays out is this melodramatic and ridiculous plot where the daughter secretly records her dad’s perv confessions.
Alright, here’s the thing. Most of us, do not become gumshoe, crack detectives and are able to set up a sting. Ok, in real life, that girl would have showed up at her dad’s place and been beaten, or raped or worse. He was insane and since the girl is set up as a character who literally cannot defend herself, it makes no sense that she would have been able to get away from him. This is a girl who needs her boyfriend to check her bedroom for zombies after she watched the original Dawn of the Dead… The author did not give us a character who authentically and honestly could have set her father up.
I’m always, always saying this, you have to know your characters. Your character can’t out of the blue, with no foreshadowing or set up become the hero. If she is not taking martial arts class, I better not read about her kicking anybodies ass. If he is not taking speech therapy, or practicing to speak without his stutter, then it should not just go away, because it makes a more dramatic ending. We will not care if we don’t believe and you have to foreshadow, set up events and develop your characters.
4. Know what the Hell You are Talking About.
If you’re main character has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, you better know everything there is to know about the disorder and how the disorder effects a persons life. Just, because you saw Leonardo DiCaprio freak out in the Aviator, because his mom used to wash his hands too often, does not mean that you understand OCD.
I know that you’re writing an urban fantasy about a vampire hunter, but guess what logic is still very important. My little sister has this great thing she says when we’re watching TV “TV logic” and we laugh, but guess what every TV show and story has it’s own logic. Absolutely I believe that the Doctor can go to the start of the earth then to the end of it, because we know that he has a time machine.
Now, if Peter Bishop on Fringe used the doors between the parallel worlds to travel through time I would cry foul. Time travel isn’t world jumping. You have to know what you’re talking about and what the rules for your world is. The Doctor can travel through time and space, but he cannot time travel in his own life. He can’t go “oh, let me see what my 20 year old self is doing.” You know? You have to understand your world and stick to the rules. Which means you must create rules. If Superman didn’t have kryptonite there would be no stories to tell, because he would just always win. Nope, there must be rules and guidelines.
5. Don’t cop out.
My biggest issues with love triangles today is that I know we’re going to get a B.S ending. Authors are terrified of making their main characters jerks. They are afraid of breaking hearts, but guess what that is what happens. If two people love one person then there is going to be heartbreak. Either all three or just one. It doesn’t matter. It’s going to hurt. If you decide to go there then you have to deal with the consequences.
There is this series about Merry Gentry, a fae woman who is destined to become a faery queen. In order to protect herself, Merry must have children. She gets a group of elite men whose job it is to protect her and impregnate her. This series has a lot of sex. If you read a few books and you get into it, you begin to join sides. I was a huge fan of Frost and Rhys. I wanted one of them to be the father of Merry’s children. I wanted one of them to marry her and become king of faery. I am sure that other readers had the same feelings for different guys. So, here is what the author did. She made Merry pregnant with twins and made each of the guys a partial father to one of the twins… Yup, you heard right. These two kids have like 3 fathers each….DUMB. STUPID. COP OUT.
There is nothing in this series that hinted to the fact that a child could have more than one sire and mother. So, all of a sudden the rules of the world and the rules of you know real life are thrown out the window, because the author didn’t want to upset anyone.
Please don’t do this! Make the hard choices. Let hearts break. It’s amazing to me that it’s easier to kill a beloved character than it is for an author to break their hearts.
6. Give us the Ending Your Characters Deserve and not the One your audience wants.
I used to watch this horrible TV show called Gossip Girl. It was so bad and when I look back at it, I have to ask myself why I was watching it. But, here’s the thing about Gossip Girl. There are these two relationships that fans believed should be endgame, but the writers took their characters on different journeys. To the rational mind it was pretty obvious that Dan and Serena, Chuck and Blair were over. They were each others first love and first loves are not always last loves. But, the fans of Gossip Girl revolted and were so angry. And what did Gossip Girl’s writing team do? They caved. THEY CAVED. They gave the audience exactly what they wanted and guess what it made no sense. It just did not work and the writer’s did not have enough time to realistically bring these characters back together.
Listen, I think that if your readers are sticking with you for hours, months and years, yes you owe them a satisfying end. BUT, if the only thing that makes sense is for your character to die then you have to do it. Don’t worry about pissing your readers off or the fact that we like happy endings.
Everything cannot end happy. Life is not always happy and if you have been leading your audience to a blaze of glory ending then you have to do it. You do. You can’t mess up your entire story, because you think that your audience wants a HEA. Sometimes, you have to give us what’s best. And if it’s best we will feel it. We will cry, we will be heartbroken, but we will know it’s for the best, because you set it up that way and it paid off.