Connecting with your characters – redux

Or “trying again.” ‘Cause I’m not real sure what “redux” means. (Wait–let me go look it up…)

Redux means “brought back” so it fits. I’ve brought the topic back. Because I didn’t get around to coming back and writing about it yesterday. See, I had the dayjob till almost 4 p.m., then I had to drive to the medical school health clinic for a dermatologist appointment, then I had to get my head examined (literally) and my brain frozen (sorta–it was a spot on my forehead they froze), and then it was time to change to go downtown to sing. I sang till 8:30 p.m., got home at close to 9, went out with the fella and the boy to Salsa’s for supper–it was mariachi night–the mariachi band was playing, and they were good! (I had Pollo del Mar–chicken with a seafood sauce that had crab meat, shrimp and crawfish in it–YUM!) Anyway, by the time we got home, I was exhausted, and I just didn’t make it. I didn’t get any writing done, so I have to start over on my day-counting, and I sure didn’t get back here to write anything on what I wanted to write about.

I’m going to try to make Wednesdays about Writing. But if you’ve been following my blog for very long, you probably know that I’m not very good about being organized. I do pretty good for a while, then something happens (like getting my head frozen) (The spot’s not cancerous or anything, it’s just big and brown and scaly and itchy, and I want it gone.), and my good intentions fall completely apart. I will do my VERY best, but… It’s me.

So. Have you ever gotten one of those rejections? The ones that say “I just couldn’t connect with your characters”? If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve received rejections, but if you’re lucky, yours said something besides “Thanks, but no thanks.” Because then you can do something about it–for the next submission, because unless the rejection says “I’d be happy to look at this again, after revisions,” you don’t send this same thing back to the editor. You’re better off writing something new anyway. But you’re also better off writing characters your reader can connect to. How do you do this, you ask? Well…

I’m sure you’ve heard “Your characters can do anything they want, as long as you motivate it.” Right? The problem is, sometimes that motivation doesn’t come through on the page. Writing classes usually say “Less is more,” and “Show, don’t tell.” And yes, that is important. But sometimes, less is just less. And you’re showing all you can, and the reader just can’t see. Because there’s nothing really there to see but words. Little chicken scratches on paper.

This is where what I call “The Novelist’s Secret Weapon” comes in. See, today’s writer of fiction is … yeah, I think the word I want is handicapped. So much of the entertainment we consume is visual. It’s movies and video games and television. Yes, it’s all stories, but the stories are acted out. We’re seeing the story, and yes, hearing it too. And writers tend to write their novels almost as if they were screenplays. Oh, they’re in a prose format–but all you get is action and dialogue. Or maybe the action stops for some backstory or other exposition. Problem is–movies and television have actors, and we’ve been reading body language and facial expressions for thousands of years longer than we’ve been reading words. So you need more.

The Novelist’s Secret Weapon is that you can give your reader more. We can crawl inside the character’s head and share what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling and how they react to the events in the story. If you’re not giving us something from inside your character’s head every few paragraphs, you’re not giving us anything to connect with. We need that thought and reaction and emotion in order to connect.

Here’s how I did it in my first book with Tor, New Blood:

“I want to do it today,” Amanusa said. “I want you to take the blood and put it in the porridge pot, and in the tea kettle. Those who don’t eat porridge drink tea, and those who don’t drink tea–”

“Yes, Miss Whitcomb.” Jax waited, bent over in the doorway.

“Can you do it without anyone noticing?”

“Of course. Yvaine often had me deliver the blood to the vessel.”

“Don’t stand there blocking the light,” she snapped, irritated for no reason and annoyed because of it. “Come in or go out, but don’t stand in the doorway.”

“Of course, Miss Whitcomb.” He left the tent.

“No, come back.”

Obedient as always, he returned and waited for her command. Amanusa wished she knew what to ask of him.

“You think I’m wrong, don’t you?” She didn’t know she was going to say it until the words were out. “You don’t think I should do it.”

 I highlighted the internal things, so you wouldn’t miss them. You don’t have to put the thoughts/reactions in every paragraph. It’s better if you don’t, in fact. But whenever something happens your character would have a reaction to–show their reaction.

Here’s a short excerpt from China Mieville’s Kraken:

The boy peeped. He looked at the bone apatosaurus that Billy had seemed to greet. Or maybe, Billy thought, he was looking at the glyptodon beyond it. All the children had a favorite inhabitant of the Natural History Museum’s first hall, and the glyptodon, that half-globe armadillo giant, had been Billy’s.” 

The blue is direct thought. The green is narrative that conveys something only the character would know. But you need to keep it up, connecting the reader with the characters through their thoughts, knowledge and emotions, the way they react to things. Here, Mieville shows Billy connecting with the little boy at the museum, and that makes us connect with him, at least a bit, by showing Billy as a little boy himself. One who liked dinosaurs.

Do you see? One way to help the reader connect with the character is by showing what is going on inside the character–who they are deep down inside. We can’t see, literally, what the character is doing, but we have that Secret Weapon. We can show what’s inside their brains. And if we don’t use it, we’re going to lose–not the weapon, but the reader.

Now–it may be that you have plenty of thought, emotion and reaction, but the reader still can’t connect because, well, your character just isn’t coming off as likable. *raises hand* Been there, done that, wore out the T-shirt. And I know how to fix that too. But that’s a topic for another day.

I’ll have to write something in a little bit, so I can start over on Day 1. I wrote enough on Tuesday that if I had decided beforehand to take Wednesday off, and it wasn’t too close to the last day I took off, I could have… but I didn’t decide beforehand, and it’s less than a week, so I have to start over. Ugh. Yeah, I’m all whiney. I’ll come back and add to this after I write.


Good thing I don’t really care for a lot of the television shows the fella likes to watch. I got my words written. Let’s see if I can make it to 20 this time…

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