“I didn’t connect with your MC.” I’ve heard it so many times. In one of my more recent rejections the agent doted, saying she “absolutely loved” my concept and that my take on the setting was “genius.” She used the word genius! Ultimately though, she rejected me because she did not connect with my character. After reading this my mind was filled with questions. What was it about my main character that caused you not to connect with her? Is this something agents just say when they know the novel is not for them but they just can’t pin-point why? If not then how, how, how can I make you connect with my character?
I have one of three reactions to rejection: 1.) A short pouting session where I turn my back on all things literary. 2.) A ravenous search for knowledge where I tear through every piece of advice ever written to improve the fault the agent has exposed. 3.) Both one and two combined in that order. This time I experienced the latter.
So, after completing step one, I did a little research on what can make the reader connect with the main character of a story and here’s what I came up with.
Make your MC Suffer
We are a sick species who can’t seem to turn our eyes away from tragedy. It twists our insides to watch but we have to see the outcome. Capturing this element creates intrigue and ultimately a story that can’t be put down. One of my earliest mistakes in writing was giving my MC what she wanted too soon without enough trial and tribulation. I loved my main character, providing for her like a spoiled child. The problem with this is that it’s just not an interesting read. We understand more through empathetic and sympathetic communications than any other method. It’s important to put your MC through the cheese grater and then put them back together on the other side before you conclude your story. Sick as it is, it’s what people want to read.
Tap Into Your MC’s Emotions
From fleeting emotions to the more grounded ones that make your character unique, the reader needs to understand, know and feel your MC’s emotions for themselves. Showing not telling is key. Her stomach roils, his skin prickles, her blood speeds up creating torrents in her veins. Stressful situations expose the true character of a human in real life. It should do the same in your story. No matter the action or the cleverness of the writing, regardless of the fascinating twists, if the main character’s reactions are not identifiable then the reader will not make a connection and will be left with that “meh – it was all right” feeling at the end of the story. We’ve all been to that movie. The special effects were mind blowing. The character’s were hot, the plot was riveting but you never got to know the character on that deep level of human connection. Those stories are the ones we forget because we didn’t feel anything.
Another essential element of writing emotions is making sure your MC is growing emotionally through the journey. They should not be the same person at the end of the story as they were in the beginning. Maybe they are less of a person: broken, weak, lonely. Maybe they have grown stronger, realizing their purpose and finding confidence. Whatever the case, it should be a gradual growth the reader can track from start to finish. Though the reader may not realize it, the outer journey should be the subsequent one. The real odyssey should be the inner transformation that is taking place. It is easy for authors to miss this because we have so much work to do putting the intricate details of a believable plot together. Creating an emotional tracker for your main character and describing his or her state of emotions as they progress can help make sure this development is occurring and provide the dramatic action that makes a story a page turner.
The Reader Needs to Care about the Goal
Dramatic action revolves around the characters goal and, while the character may not be aware of it, their methods of achieving that goal develops their emotions. Their reactions to the successes and failures that occur while achieving that goal reveals even more and the goal itself helps to define the character. But here’s the kicker: if your reader doesn’t care about the goal then you’ve lost them. Writing the goal isn’t the real obstacle though. The goal doesn’t have to be this big flashy thing. Your character doesn’t have to aspire to save the world. It could be something as simple as being a good writer or understanding themselves (Eat Love Pray). The trick is making the reader care about the character’s goals because they care about the character. We can do this by showing (not telling) the MC’s reactions to setbacks and failures and success. Another way to do this is by creating tensions and obstacles for our character to prevent them from achieving this goal too soon in the story.
Now, it’s your turn. How do you get your reader to connect with your characters? I’m a sponge. Fill me!