A fresh new year is creeping up on us. I'm quite excited. I can't wait until the end of next year to look back at the year and see what I have written. I don't have any big, new ideas at the moment, but I'm brewing a formula for some fun work. Feel free to adopt any of these ideas yourself.
1. Develop Characters Who Draw Sympathy
Your main character, especially, should garner sympathy. When readers feel for the character, they like him and want to find out what happens to him.
You don't necessarily need empathy. (Remember, sympathy is feeling badly about someone's circumstances; empathy is relating to someone's bad situation because you've been there yourself.) It challenges you as a writer to dig into the psyche of a person plagued with problems you've never experienced. Honestly, it's a bit of a relief when you can put those problems aside, too, and give thanks that they are not yours to own.
And it's a great way to bring your readers to the point of saying, "Wow, I've never thought about what that would be like." Writer points!
2. Give Those Characters Some Tough Circumstances
Because having it bad, just isn't enough. (At least in the fiction world.)
This is what provokes a reader to say, "Oh no, how can that happen to that poor person?" Again, the reader connects to the character. Then, "How on earth will he get out of that mess?" Reader must continue reading.
This is a hard one for me because I am not a risk taker. I want to play everything safe. But then again... doing awful things to my characters is therapeutic on a bad day and saves my kids some fear.
3. Create More Supporting Characters with Strong Connections to the Main Character
Because the reader already feels a connection to main character (thanks, Sympathy!), they can relate even more to the supporting characters. As a matter of fact, supporting characters are a help to the reader by acting out what the reader wants to do for the main character.
You don't want to go overboard with the number of supporting characters because that could get confusing. But if you have a few, who react differently to the main character, you can cover several different emotional levels of the readers.
4. Complicate Relationships
You have to do this just to emulate real life and make secondary characters as real as the main characters. When a character is too forgiving, or not selfish enough, they are nothing more than 2-dimensional paper dolls. The readers will throw them away like a used tissue. A book about a main character who gets everything they want won't be more than 10 pages long. Your story arc requires problems, and most problems in real life (read: relatable in your book) come from other people, don't they?
The secondary characters must have wants and needs to be real enough for the story. And of course, it has to be difficult to get these needs to line up with those of the main character. Figuring out how to handle those other problems is just another stepping stone for the main character's growth.
5. Force Characters to Make Difficult Decisions
These decisions should be complicated enough that the audience doesn't know a right answer. (Think: Sophie's Choice, though it doesn't necessarily have to be that depressing.) The solutions to the problem should have equal consequences, whether they are positive outcomes, negative, or a combination. There should be room for readers to argue among themselves about what the character should have done. Look at that - you've just created a book club for your novel! (Or at least a discussion on Goodreads.)
By the way, the characters MUST choose. Enforce some kind of time limit on them to heighten the stress. They can't run away from their problems, or else the reader will run away from the book.
6. Have the Characters Make Some Bad Choices to Highlight Their Flaws
It makes the characters real. Readers will put down a book when the character is so perfect that they (the readers) feel bad about themselves.
When a character makes a mistake, a reader sometimes feels that they are smarter than the character and would never have made that mistake themselves, leading the reader to make judgments about the character, and thus involving them more greatly in the story. (Think of the stupid people in horror movies. As soon as you, the audience, say, "I would never have done that. I would have done this instead," you have inserted yourself into the story.)
It's also important to use this strategy to prolong the story and make the story arc lumpy enough to succeed.
7. When It Seems the Plot is Just About Resolved, Throw in a New Complication
The goal here is to make the reader get angry at you for not ending the book. You should hear screams of, "Nooooo!" all around the world. The only thing better than getting readers to feel strongly about your characters, is for them to feel strongly about you, the author. Oh, don't worry, they will SAY they hate you for what you do to them, but those readers are hiding their secret addiction to your work and will count the days until your next book. (I think.)
And once again, the flow of your book depends on that lumpy story arc. Readers may be surprised, but they are actually expecting a wrench in the plans as part of the rhythm of the story. You just caught them off-guard, and that's okay. They'll get over it when they finish the book. As a matter of fact, that point where they screamed cuss words at you? Their favorite part.
8. Show the Reader the Answer at the Beginning, But Make It Disappear Along the Way, So That When the Answer Shows Up Again At the End, the Surprise of It Is Almost Comical
I love doing this. As a reader, you know what's going to happen - you were told flat out in the beginning, before you had any emotional attachments. But then, as you keep reading, you grow so close to the character, that you can't imagine the author would actually do what she said she was going to do. And then she does it.
Go ahead, Readers, hate me! Bring it on. I love playing with your emotions.
9. Make Them Cry
The ultimate goal. Manipulate readers' emotions to the point of physical response.
I discovered the joy of this each year when one of my children turned a year old. I loved to write poems reflecting back on their babyhoods. But I loved it even more when relatives would complain how I made them cry when they read it.
It's the sneaky way we fiction writers are going to take over the world. When we get into readers' heads and control their emotions, we become the overlords. Now, if only we can get them to read our books in the first place…
10. Do Something New
Sometimes you need a break from what you've been doing. I have been writing, editing, and sending out for publishing the books in my Angelmen series for the past 3 years now, but since I am pretty much through with the idea, I need to keep fresh thoughts coming in. So I have several other stand-alone books begun - some are just ideas - to work on when I need a break. A writer needs to write, so we just can't stop!
I'm eager to get back to my books and put these project goals to work. I'm also eager to get to other ideas to improve my writing too, so if you have anything to add here, I'd love to steal it! (Oops! I mean read about it…)
Happy New Year to one and all!
Because I love even numbers and lists!