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Engage Readers Through Character Reaction

on July 16th, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on July 16, 2011

How can you engage a reader, interest him in the events unfolding around a character, when the character himself is not engaged?

You can’t.

If your characters don’t have a response—in speech, in thought, or in action—to the events happening to them, they haven’t been touched by those events, and the reader will likewise remain untouched and uninvolved.

But we don’t want uninvolved readers. We want readers who dive into our stories with the same passion and fervor our characters experience. We want readers to feel, to experience, as if their own lives or reputations or hearts were on the line.

Yet we often sabotage our own efforts by ensuring that readers are kept at a distance, uninvolved.

And that we most definitely don’t want to do.

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Readers can be held away from the emotions and depths of our stories if we don’t invite them to come close. When we don’t make it possible for them to feel, they won’t feel. When we don’t create the atmosphere needed for emotions to rise, emotion will be absent and our stories will be cold. It’s as simple as that and quite under our control as writers.

One way to bring readers close, to get them feeling what the characters feel, is to share character reactions with readers.

A character who responds to something in his story shows the reader that he can be moved, has been moved, and also signals to the reader that something important has happened.

When a character responds to an event in his world, that’s a clear sign his emotions have been pricked. He responds because he must. In addition, if the character focuses his attention somewhere, responds in some way, the reader’s attention swings to that same spot and the reader is primed to respond as well.

Whether it’s event or dialogue or thought or revelation, if a character responds to a stimulus, that response is noteworthy.

So let’s talk about character response and reaction and explore what character reaction can do for fiction and for the readers of fiction.

Impact
When something happens in a book, we often gauge the impact and the importance by how characters respond. If a character laughs off a near-accident, the reader can as well. Readers know not to invest too much when little is at stake.

But when a character experiences jealousy because another character makes time with his wife, the reader is drawn into the emotion of the moment, feeling pain on the character’s behalf.

Character reaction is key to gaining the reader’s attention, to pulling her deeper into the scene, to engaging the reader’s emotions.

Characters who remain unmoved keep readers unmoved. If events don’t touch a character, they certainly won’t touch the reader.

If the characters aren’t curious, readers won’t be either. If characters can’t be bothered to care, how can we expect readers to care? Character response drives reader response.

So, what’s a writer to do?

Focus
The reader looks where the character looks. What the character focuses on, the reader focuses on. Be sure to create focal points worthy of the character’s, and the reader’s, attention.

Show characters involved in life-altering pursuits. Don’t allow your characters to get lost in minutiae and unimportant details. Where the character goes—in thought and action and emotion—so goes the reader.

Reaction
Make sure characters react.

When Bob tells John that he killed his brother, give John an appropriate reaction. Don’t have him blink once or twice and then propose a game of golf. (Unless, of course, we’re talking hit men and they’re discussing their day jobs.)

When a building blows up, show Missy seeking safety behind her car or behind the furniture or behind the hulk of a policeman who works the corner of Lexington and 11th Avenue.

When Tessa loses her third baby to miscarriage, don’t allow her to go back to work the next morning without a word to anyone—without a thought in her mind about the devastation she feels.

When Larry admits to his brother that he knows their dad isn’t their birth father, don’t let his brother ignore the revelation. Make him push for answers. Make him react. Make him feel.

Show characters reacting to the events that drive their stories. And show varying intensities in reactions, just as you show a variety of intensities in the events themselves.

Use the spectrum of responses; not everything will be life-shattering.

Give character reactions highs and lows. Allow characters to be moved, changed, by what happens to them, to those they love, and when they can’t control those events that happen around them.

Show what’s important by turning the spotlight—the reader’s attention—to that which you want to highlight.

Realistic Characters
Even a stoic character is moved, at least on the inside. And the most stoic also act, even if they don’t complain verbally about those things that hurt them.

They do lash out. They do get even. They do go after those who’ve hurt the ones they love.

It’s realistic, expected, for people to react when provoked, even if their only response is in their thoughts. It’s unnatural to ignore provocation. Whatever the nature of the provocation, make your characters respond in an appropriate manner. Isn’t that why you provoked them in the first place, to make them react? To make something happen? To get the character involved and willing to do something?

Don’t you push your characters so they’ll move beyond what they’ve been doing, beyond the status quo? Isn’t provocation a precursor to conflict?

Expand your characters’ options by including reactions.

Escalate
Allow responses to grow as the story progresses. What a character might forgive early in a story might later produce an over-reaction. Pile on the stresses and problems and any character will respond. If yours don’t, something is out of whack.

Remember that readers will take on a character’s feelings. If a character doesn’t show his, how can the reader feel any?

What moves characters also moves readers.

Make sure you’re moving your characters, especially the leads. Protagonist and antagonist should be affected by story events. If they’re not, they’re robots, incapable of emotion. And if they don’t feel, how can you expect them to act on their feelings? They can’t do what you’ve not created them to do.

And when characters don’t respond, readers don’t. And when readers don’t respond, they’ll find your stories uninvolving and your characters flat.

Types of response
Characters can react through action, through dialogue, and through thought. Writers should make use of all three types of reactions in their stories.

A mother might tell a friend she could murder the drunk driver who killed her only child.

Or she might dream of killing him, even going so far as to plan what she’ll tell the judge as she faces sentencing.

Or, she might actually stalk the man, following him to an AA meeting and waylaying him afterward, ramming his car with her own until she’s sure he’s dead.

Dialogue, thought, and action. Each brings a different emphasis to story, but all can be used to relay reaction.

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Invite readers into the emotional side of your stories by tapping into their emotions. And tap those emotions by showing what moves your characters.

Remember reaction as you write. Remember to turn the reader’s focus toward events of sufficient importance that move your characters.

Engage readers through character reaction.

Create dynamic, engaging fiction.

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3 Responses to “Engage Readers Through Character Reaction”

  1. Jill Lynn says:

    A most excellent post, Beth. One might say it moved me to get more emotionally in tune with my characters.

  2. We may get so involved with action and the plot that we forget characters think and feel and react. Getting in tune with characters sounds good to me, Jill Lynn.

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