Checking Your Pulse


Sometimes I think I’m part robot. While this can be useful for getting things done and standing one’s ground in the face of emotional, back-talking teenagers, it doesn’t help when writing characters.

I’ve taken workshops with the inimitable Donald Maass, and he often talks about emotion in manuscripts, specifically how little he sees of it. During a class with him, and in subsequent critiques of my WIPs, I realized this is what I struggle with most in my writing: emotion. My characters do things and go places and stuff happens to them. But what are they feeling when all this occurs? Do we really need to know?

Yes, we do.

Emotion is what connects us to the characters we read. It is, in fact why many of us read. We want to make a connection with the protagonist so that we can empathize with her as we travel on her journey by her side. But if we don’t know what the character is feeling, how can we feel a connection? And if there’s no connection, why do we care what happens to her, or whether she overcomes her struggles?

There have certainly been books I’ve tried to read and had to put down. Books that were bestsellers or were recommended to me surprised me when I realized I just couldn’t read them. At the time, I presumed it was the voice I didn’t care for or the writing style or the density of prose. But on reflection I see it was often that I just didn’t connect with the main character. I didn’t like her or care about her enough to want to keep reading.

Author Darynda Jones suggests first creating empathy for your main character, and then letting her misbehave. This will ensure readers stay on for the ride. She offers a few ways to do this:

-Put them in jeopardy

-Show other characters liking them to make them likeable

-Give them power, either super or as an everyday hero

-Use humor

Darynda suggests using at least two of these, and then gives writers permission to go ahead and torture the character.

Reading is certainly subjective. Anyone who has queried a novel in search of an agent can attest to this. What’s right for one person won’t be right for another. But aside from writing the best book we can, one sure way to increase the odds that our book will be loved and widely read is to make the reader feel something. Whether it’s anger that a character would do something so stupid, or sadness that a character has suffered a terrible loss, a connection needs to exist. Emotion must be elicited or the reader may as well read the newspaper.

How do you evoke emotions from your characters and readers?

4 thoughts on “Checking Your Pulse

  1. I remember reading about how emotions of all kinds lead to physical responses and I try to describe that physical aspect to help readers feel the same thing. Sometimes it’s not just a situation that we can relate to, but that all too familiar sensation of being punched in the gut when we feel betrayed or that swoop in the stomach when feeling attraction to someone.

    Good reminders.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s so true about the physical responses. Whenever I’m going through something horrible, I make mental notes about how I’m feeling so I can channel it later. It may sound cold, but it gets me through by reminding me that *some* good will come from the experience.


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