Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tell Me Why I Should Care

Who IS this guy?

I'm seeing some awesome posts all over the blogosphere today about writing: how to write beginnings, how to make people care, how not to P.O. literary agents when you're querying... Okay, that last one isn't exactly about writing. But it's definitely relevant to a writer's career. Check out the link for info on a very common newbie mistake.

When I opened my own blog draft, the topic that stood out to me was CONFLICT in writing. And how CONFLICT = CONTEXT.

Last month at Barnes and Noble, I picked up a book that started in the middle of a war. I read about character names, twitching faces, armies advancing in unison, flags of various colors--all great descriptions of the external conflict (and the face-twitching could even represent an internal conflict in a different context). But I couldn't get into the book.

I didn't care about the people.

*Enter flashbacks to U.S. History class*

My teacher stands at the front of the classroom beside a chalkboard laden with chicken scratches that resemble letters. I heft the giant History tome from my backpack's open zipper with a sigh. There's Mr. Helsel, looking all history-teacher-ish with his pastel polo shirt and khaki trousers. He's got his chalk-stained hands at the ready, but there's something else... a twinkle in his eye.

While he goes off on what seems like a wild tangent about the purported hygiene of people during the Great Depression, or the religion of one of the key figures in women's suffrage, I realize something:

He's teaching me history, and I'm learning it. Not just learning, but enjoying it. And I'd always hated history before.

*Flash forward to the end of the year*

I got a 3 on the AP History exam, but it really should have been a 1 or a 2. The reason I got a 3 (out of 5, the equivalent of a C average) has sandy hair and a twinkle in his eye when he talks about history.

He made me care enough to absorb what other teachers had rendered boring. He gave me meaningful and emotional connections to key figures or peoples so that when someone asked me to describe the movement or the revolution or the war, actual people came to mind, rather than disembodied numbers, settings, and names.

That's the way to write good fiction, too. Tell me why I the reader should care about the bomb going off on your first page. Why do I want the train to stop before it reaches Lake Titicaca? Why do I want the vampire coven to take their sweet time reaching a verdict?

Readers don't have to care about external conflict (wars and battles, and even covert operations). What makes it matter is the internal conflict of individuals (hopes, fears, desperate desires, lives hanging in the balance, faces that give it all away).

It's the internal conflict more than anything that gives the reader CONTEXT. It's the emotion that drives the story, and places the reader irrevocably in your MC's head.  

Start with action, by all means. But show by that action who your warriors are. Who is holding the gun? Is it a small girl with trembling hands or a cold and steady killer? Who slipped the folded note into the narrator's pocket? A sweaty, bald guy wearing a professor vest? Or a handsome teenager who whistles Beatles tunes when he walks? And how did it make your narrator feel to be touched by a perfect stranger? To have a gun pointed at his stomach?

Make me care, and you'll have me hooked for the whole book.  


  1. Excellent insight on why good character development is SO important!

  2. Wow, you're on target! I couldn't agree more with what you wrote. I've laid books aside because I felt as though it was a commercial hack by an author who didn't care about me the reader but loved the money I ploped down to buy the book.

  3. Excellent points to bear in mind. Although, my lead characters don’t even have any identifiable humanity until chapter five – on which I’m currently working. Maybe I can try to make the reader care twice as much now, if it isn’t too late. Oh the agonies of being a novice.
    The enigmatic, masked blogger

  4. This is kind of related to the post I did earlier today, but you say it much better. :) I love your blog and I love your insight. All of what you said in this post is so true. If I don't care about a character, I won't give a darn about the plot, even if it is the most amazing, knock-your-socks-off, holy-cow-my-mind-is-boggled plot in the entire world. So many books that could have been amazing turned out to be lousy because of this one thing.
    Well said!
    Put it on Paper

  5. Okay first, I'd like to tell you: He's the man who guards the men's room door. (Now I'll go back and read the rest.)

    I'm back. And you're right. Story telling is the most important factor. If it's told well, and you feel for the characters, you're not going to want to put that book down. Three dimensional. Characters who are ALIVE. That's our goal. Your last line was awesome, Katrina. (In fact, I'm stealing it for future reference/inspiration. So there.)

    Jessica (number two - it looks like - lol Or shall I sign as Snip?)

  6. Liz- Thank you! Character development is something I'm always tweaking in my own work--it's so hard to get right the first time.

    Kittie- Oh boy! Nothing worse than a book that actually FEELS gimmicky.

    TBFKA- You have a really long name! Thanks for commenting! And I know what you mean about novice-hood. I still have to go back and add characterization to my early chapters once I complete a story.

    Jessica- I read your post on teachers who influenced you with their passion for the subject, and I 100% agree with everything you said. I'm a new follower of your blog. Thank God for passionate teachers.

    Snip (hee hee, I think I'll just call you Jessica)- I LOL-ed when I read your comment! He guards the men's room...I think I'm getting a middle grade fantasy idea right now!

  7. :) I love this post. You've talked about this wonderfully. I find that though I start reading a novel because of a hook, I continue to read because of the characters. If I love the character enough -- if I care about him or her -- I'll read on regardless. :)


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