Creating Characters that Make Readers Cry

Last week I wrote the Black Moment in my Work-In-Progress. And as you know, the Black Moment is the point in the final act of our stories where our main character hits rock bottom. Of course it’s usually more believable to gradually slide our character down to the dirty, painfully sharp cavern, rather than throwing them off the cliff to the bottom. So, that’s what I’d been working on all along—sliding her down, down, down. . .

I was sitting in my usual quiet corner of the library in a boring three-sided cubicle (which, by the way, is where I do some of my best writing). I was 75,000 plus words into my novel and was at the point where my heroine was nearing the bottom. In previous chapters I’d already heaped one little problem after another onto her so that against the weight she was helpless to do anything but slide down. But now I’d come to a scene where she had to make a crucial, heart-rending decision.

Finally, her feet hit the bottom of the deep dark hole. I found myself there with her. Her pain radiated in my heart. Her tears wet my cheeks. My arms ached with her emptiness.

After I finished typing the last words of the scene, I wiped at my tears and glanced around to see if anyone had witnessed my sob session and wondered if the librarians would now dub me as “that crazy emotional woman over in the corner.”

It wasn’t the first time I’ve cried while writing a scene. And I hope it’s not the last. There’s something incredibly satisfying about moving yourself to tears with your own words. As I pondered what I wrote, I couldn’t help asking myself, “If this scene makes me cry, will it someday move my readers to the same depth of emotion?”

How can we know if we’re creating characters that will make our readers cry? Or laugh? Or love? Isn’t that what we really want? To give our readers the kind of experience that will stir them in their deepest place?

But how do we do that?

I don’t know that there is one easy answer for how to infuse our scenes and characters with such a strong emotional-charge that it elicits a response from readers. Here are just a few ways I work at infusing emotion into my characters:

*Become the character. As I mentioned in the last post, I don’t start writing until I AM my character. When I’m in a character’s POV (point of view), their flushed skin is mine, their blood pulses through my heart, their thoughts run rampant through my mind. We’re one and the same.

*Tap my own emotions. If I AM my character, then it stands to reason if I go to the deep part of my emotional experiences and let them well up, I’ll transfer them to my character. I need only visualize and seep myself in the recent or past memories of my own losses, rejections, or frustrations in order to give them to my character in their own unique way.

*Make it believable. Getting to an emotionally-charged moment requires set-up. If we throw our characters over the cliff to rock bottom, sure they’ll feel pain. But it will feel contrived. Instead we need to establish the crucible--the thing our character can't live without. We need to drop hints at how important this crucible is and then slowly lead our character to the point where they’re forced by circumstances to relinquish their hope, dream, or whatever is critical to them. When we build up to the painful moment, our readers will invest more emotion into it.

*Slow down and show. In those especially charged scenes, I slow down the action and I take the lens of my mental camera and zoom on specific details and emotions. This isn’t the time for a panoramic or big picture shot. This is the time for a close up. I point my camera around the scene trying to capture the heartache in ways that SHOW the emotion and tension I'm trying to convey.

So what about you? Have you moved yourself to tears or laughter during your writing? What are other ways we can infuse emotion into our characters?

P.S. If you need a character worksheet, I've posted mine in a tab at the top of my blog. You're welcome to print it out and use it.

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