Several comments on my last post about how to create compelling characters asked similar questions: How can we make sure the cool character in our head makes it onto the page?
Woo boy, I am not an expert at this, and that’s a tricky question to answer. But to be honest, I’m not sure any of us can ever claim to be an expert at this aspect of writing.
Unless we can read minds, we can only know what we know and guess at how others—such as our readers—will interpret what we tell them. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t read minds. *smile*
However, many writing tips we’ve heard over our careers tie into the goal of getting our readers onto the same page as our writing. Those tips often are key to sharing our brain with our readers as much as possible. But the process will never—ever—be completely clean.
Why Is It So Difficult to Make Ourselves Understood?
Why can one person love a book, TV show, or movie and someone else hate it? Because life is far more subjective than we think.
Our brain likes dealing with absolutes, so it’s tempting to think that if we like or dislike something, hold some belief or value, or have a worldview based on our experience, everyone else must think, believe, or feel the same way. Or if others think differently, it’s easy to judge them as being stupid or some kind of *ist (racist, sexist, etc.).
But the truth is that no one else has lived our life, so of course they’re not going to interpret things the same way we do. And we haven’t lived their lives, so of course we can’t really know what they’re thinking, believing, feeling, or intending.
All we can do is guess. And that means a word like “smirk” might be interpreted as a teasing half-smile by some and an arrogantly evil expression by others. Or it might mean a hero grabbing a heroine to prevent her from leaving his side is interpreted as sweet by some and patronizing by others.
That’s just how it is. However, we can ensure that we’re doing our best to make our writing as clear as possible.
Step 1: Start with a Three-Dimensional Character
Many of the later tips won’t work unless our character is living and breathing in our mind. We should have a good understanding of:
- what they want (goals),
- what they long for (needs),
- who they pretend to be (what’s their mask),
- who they really are (what’s their essence),
- what’s their backstory wound, and
- what lie they believe or tell themselves.
There are plenty of other things we’ll probably know about our character as well, such as what they look like, their habits or quirks, or maybe a secret or what they fear. This isn’t an exhaustive list.
The point is to know them well enough that we can crawl into their head and experience the story from their perspective. Only by reaching that level of understanding will the reader be able to do the same.
Step 2: Decide What Readers Need to Understand
Readers will always take away ideas, impressions, and themes beyond what we intended because of subjectivity. Words and phrases that we don’t intend to have subtext will have deeper meaning in their mind.
(See any contradictory analysis of a story by literature professors for proof that people will take what they wish out of our stories. *smile* This is a great image illustrating that fact. (Warning: Language.))
A common piece of advice is to Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE). But like all advice, we can take that point too far. Sometimes we do need to explain enough so the reader won’t assume the story will be about A when it’s really about B.
So when we really need readers to understand, we need to be clear and not rely on subtext. In my experience, I’ve found it necessary to usually be clear with:
- Goals: Goals drive the narrative of the story, so if the goals aren’t clear, pacing can suffer.
- Stakes (and Conflict): Stakes drive reader tension and dread, so if the obstacles and consequences of failure aren’t clear, readers won’t be as invested in the story.
- Motivations: Motivations drive reader understanding, so if readers don’t know why a character is doing something, the character might come across as Too Stupid To Live or a puppet to the plot. As readers, we know we can forgive a lot if we understand where someone is coming from and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
That’s not to say we can’t ever leave these elements in subtext, or that we need to beat readers over the head with the details every time the issue comes up. Once we’ve made something clear, we can usually leave further exploration in the subtext.
For example, if we’ve made it clear that the hero’s motivations are driven by his attraction to the heroine, we don’t need to spell it out again when he starts doing or risking more for her. Readers will understand that his attraction has been deepening because they’ve already been handed the building blocks of understanding.
But What If Characters Aren’t Conscious of These Elements?
This is primarily an issue with motivations, as characters don’t always fully understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. For example, many a romance has a hero or heroine doing something “stupid” because they like the other person, but they might not be consciously aware that they like the other person yet.
In that case, we can use a writing device similar to the idea of “hanging a lantern/lampshade” on the action, where we point out the inconsistency. We might have the character question themselves, be unable to come up with a logical answer yet (or they’ll rationalize an answer), and do the action anyway. This technique does leave the truth in the subtext, but we’ve made the question explicit, so as long as the truth comes out later, readers will understand.
Note that we usually don’t want use this lampshade technique when a logical answer never comes to light later. Think of when a heroine goes into a dark basement simply because the plot needs her to. A good subconscious reason isn’t going to be revealed later, so this technique won’t erase the fact that she’s a puppet to the plot.
We can also use some of the same techniques we’d use to make a character vulnerable to readers. After all, no matter how deeply subconscious their goals are, we can make the subtext for those goals more explicit if we create events that expose them (see Type #3 at this link).
Step 3: Decide What Interpretation We Intend to Convey
We probably won’t be able to create a coherent impression for the reader unless we know what we want that impression to be. Once we know, we’ll be better able to come up with the right events, actions, behaviors, reactions, internalizations, hints, subtext, phrases, and words to create that impression.
Do we want the reader to sympathize yet feel inspired by a character? Then a scene where they let their frustrations boil over onto the hapless waiter at the local cafe probably won’t do the trick.
Instead, we might use a scene where they’re fired and manage to get in the last word to their bully of a boss on the way out. Rather than body language like rolling their eyes, they might fight back tears at the thought of the bills that will have to go unpaid.
Writing is manipulation, but we won’t be very good at it unless we know our goal. We have to know what we’re trying to manipulate the reader into thinking or feeling before we can get it onto the page.
Step 4: Use All Our Writing Skills to Immerse the Reader
The closer the reader is in tune with the character, the more likely the reader will be on the same page with them for the details. Once a reader sees one emotion or action or situation from a character’s perspective, the door has been opened for the rest of the character’s perspective to sneak into the reader’s brain as well.
We want to use all the skills at our disposal to get the reader thinking in tune with the character:
- ensure the character is compelling (to suck the reader into the story)
- make the character vulnerable (to expose the fears behind their mask)
- be specific with details (to make the subtext as clear as possible)
- use sensory details and descriptions (to put readers in their shoes)
- anchor the setting (so the reader can concentrate on other revelations)
- show emotions in layers (not just with easily misunderstood body language)
- use rhythm to set the stage for emotions (creating the mood)
- go deeper to avoid clichés (keeping reader interest)
- gain distance to see how others might read our words
- Etc., etc.
As we’re writing, we obviously want to use words, phrases, reactions and details that will make the elements we decided on in Steps 2 and 3 clear.
Then as I mentioned last time, we want to ensure that we’ve shown on the page everything we want the reader to take away. Is our character borderline unlikable? Make sure evidence of how they’re interesting, relatable, or sympathetic is in every scene.
And finally, we want to check our word choice and subtext the best we can to make sure we’re not undermining our intended impression. For example, if we want a character to be an alpha hero but not an arrogant jerk, we need to balance what we show (vulnerable or non-jerk thoughts) and how we show it (strong, commanding word choices).
Step 5: Get Feedback—How’d We Do?
Feedback is essential for understanding how others might interpret our words. In addition to questions about plot and story, we can ask whether our characters were too unlikable, unsympathetic, illogical, etc.
However, every reader will be different, with their own subjective interpretations and pet peeves, so we shouldn’t worry too much if everyone loves our heroine except for one beta reader or critique partner. On the other hand, if we get similar feedback from multiple readers, that’s probably a good sign we’re not getting across the message we want.
Even in that case, we don’t automatically want to change our story or character to match their suggestions. Just because our readers were able to find a problem doesn’t mean they know our intentions well enough to fix the problem.
Step 6: Make Changes Based on What’s Best for Our Story
We have to look at the feedback we receive and see if the suggestions would make the story we want to tell any better—or if they’d just change the story to something else. Different is not automatically better.
Often, we’ll want to identify the underlying issue and fix that problem. As I mentioned last time, we don’t necessarily want to cut aspects of our character that feedback says makes them unlikable or unsympathetic.
Obviously, we should cut it if the impression was unintended, but if we want that behavior to stay there (like if it’s important to their character or their arc), we can instead look at how to make that same behavior more likable or sympathetic.
For example, if a character seemingly lashes out for no reason, we can dig deeper to show the reason. Did something trigger them? Did something hit a nerve? Is it related to a backstory wound? Do they have motivation to think the lashing out would help the other person? Etc., etc.
In one of my stories, I received feedback that would have erased my heroine’s flaws and rough edges. Sure, her goals were a little questionable. *smile* But I also hadn’t done a good enough job showing the jeopardy she was in—that she was doing this “bad” thing because she’d die if she didn’t. So I increased her sense of worry, vulnerability, etc. about that threat to her life.
That mistaken reader impression was on me. I hadn’t pushed against the heroine’s bravado to expose her vulnerability on the page. But the reader can’t be kept outside of those masks and walls our characters put up, or the reader will misunderstand. The reader has to see just how vulnerable (or whatever the core issue) the character is.
As I said at the beginning, I think we’ll always struggle with this aspect in some respects just because everyone is an individual, with different experiences and worldviews. But hopefully with these ideas about how we can approach our writing with conscious choices, we’ll continue to get closer each time. *smile*
Do you struggle with getting readers to interpret your characters the way you want? Will these steps help you come up with a process? Which step is most difficult for you? What’s helped you the most in getting your thoughts and intentions onto the page? Do you have other tips to share?Pin It