How can we touch the hearts of our readers? The books that stay with us are not the ones we admire, but the ones we love. So how do you get someone to fall in love with your book?
For me the power of a good book is its ability to totally hold my heart, appealing to my emotions, and gripping me with characters that I really care about. The book becomes a page – turner not because of a clever plot, or even beautiful language, but because I have made a commitment to the characters. I need to know what happens to them at the end of their journey.
So how do you make your characters real, and empathic? How do you get your readers to care about people who are merely figments of your imagination? There are some fundamental ways – knowing your characters inside and out, good dialogue, and authentic descriptive language. It is this last element that I want to focus on.
To pull the heartstrings of your reader I think you need to provide reference points for them. This is a moment of connection with a character when no matter how disparate the fictional character and the reader’s life might seem, it is still possible to identify with that fictional character. The writer needs to make their characters human. So no matter how cold-blooded, and aloof a character might need to be, it is also important for them to have a weak point, a glimmer of vulnerability. They still might be dislikeable yet they can also be understandable, and engaging. A perfect example of such a character would be Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” – tough, cold, unemotional, ruthless and yet with such screaming vulnerability you can’t help but care for her. Yet what makes Lisbeth real? Not just the shading, the grey part of who she is, but also all the little details which make her an individual rather than a stereotype – how she looks, what she eats, how she speaks, and smells, and touches. It is the way in which Larsson uses descriptive language which colours her in.
It is not enough to describe how a character looks to tell you what they are like. In fact it can be obstructive to provide too much visual information. A writer needs to be suggestive rather than literal in their physical descriptions so that the reader can have the pleasure of painting their own picture of their favourite protagonists. However drawing upon the full repertoire of the senses helps a writer to round out their character and ultimately appeal to the readers’ own memory banks. This I call harnessing the sensual memory.
When I write about a character I try to imagine every one of their senses in a particular predicament and how they might react, not just what they see but what they smell, hear, taste and feel. Take for example an experience of loss for your character. Everyone can identify with this emotion whether they have lost in love, or someone they love has died, but what makes reading about a character’s experience of it really moving for the reader? Not just the fact of loss, but the sensations of loss. In this instance a writer sources her/his own memory for a time of loss. You have to be brave and expose your own emotions, filter through your own sensory experiences of loss and translate them onto the page to reach out to your readers’ own memories. It is the little details that tug the heartstrings: the last words you hear a loved one speak, the song of a lone blackbird as your loved one passes away, holding their hand and feeling the warmth of life drain slowly from it, the smell of lilies at the funeral, the taste of the last jar of raspberry jam your mother ever made…..
These memories create a total sensory experience for the reader so that they cannot only see your fictional world but smell it, feel it, hear it, and taste it. It is a basic and yet can also be a profound technique as a writer. We seduce our reader on a physical level and in that way we open up their hearts.