To Make Readers Feel What A Character Feels?

It's fun to feel what characters are feeling.... unless they're feeling less excitement and engagement and more boredom or sadness...

It’s fun to feel what characters are feeling…. unless they’re feeling less excitement and engagement and more boredom or sadness…

Today, I’ve been thinking about the moments when it’s great, as a reader, to have insight into a character to such an extent that the act of reading makes us feel what the character feels.

When I am in the moment, when I am caught in that window I have into a character’s soul, into what he or she is living…. it’s magical. And there are multiple ways to make this happen.

  • First person narration is an obvious aid to this, but not a requirement.
  • Pacing and sentence structure can be a HUGE factor. If a character is confused, use fragments. Confuse the reader a bit. If a character is in the middle of gut wrenching action, with no time to think, then use short simple sentences all in the active voice, emphasizing action and how fast things things are happening. Your reader will get a bit of a head spin.
  • Even stream of consciousness, if that’s your thing, can be an aid in this. A huge one.

Making me feel what the character does, to me, one of the greatest benchmarks of truly GREAT writing. This is what Shakespeare and Cervantes do on a regular basis. Hemingway is really great at this too.

Making me feel the loss in a tragedy, making me feel the anxiety of an urgent and desperate moment….

Would it shock you to hear me say, then, that I just LOVE some of Shakespeare’s plays and Cervantes, but I can’t stand Hemingway? What’s the difference?

What is it a character is feeling?

Is a character feeling overwhelmed? Taxed? Pulled in lots of direction, or just acting based on pure adrenaline? That can be exciting. Fun. A diversion from our real lives, and one that later brings us to contemplate what just happened and how we, perhaps, would have acted in such a circumstance.

Now, there is no doubt that Hemingway was a master writer. One of the great masters, in my opinion. There’s no doubt he accomplished exactly what he set out to do. I always felt what his characters did when reading him.

The problem was, what I felt was not fun or engaging for me personally.

SURE, the whole point of “The Sun Also Rises” is that the characters feel blasé, bored, and they are wasting their lives. And Hemingway’s writing made me take part in that. I hated it. The book was so boring, made me feel that its content was so lifeless, that I hated it.

GRANTED, the old man in “The Old Man and the Sea” is isolated from everyone. He is a solitary and symbolic figure. And I’m sure he had a crazy long, exhausting, and scary day out catching that marlin. But that didn’t make the crazy long, drawn out novella that I could summarize in one sentence fun to read. For me, it wasn’t.

Now, not everyone feels as strongly about Hemingway as I do. Like I said, his writing is brilliant. And I do vastly prefer his short stories, and “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” to his other novels.

Taste plays a factor here. The extent to which this happens matters too. If we’re discussing partaking in a character’s boredom, is that for two pages or thirty? If we’re discussing feeling tragedy…. Is that for a chapter or for five? That can be the difference between a fabulous, poignant scene and overdone melodrama.

So it’s something to consider:

  • Are you making readers connect with your characters in that deep way?
  • Do you want to? Will that serve your purpose? Might it end up driving your target audience away?
  • After drawing them in, are you keeping them too long?

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11 responses to “To Make Readers Feel What A Character Feels?

  1. All my stories are character-driven; therefore, I’m constantly living inside my characters’ heads while I’m writing. My “target audience” would be readers who enjoy quirky love stories. Because my books can’t be categorized, that’s where I run into problems…

  2. I feel exactly the same about Hemmingway! He was definitely a master storyteller, but none of his stories caught my interest. Shakespeare was the ultimate master. We are still learning from him. I saw a cute meme on Facebook the other day about Shakespeare. It said: “If I don’t know the meaning of a word, I create it.” What I learned the most from Shakespeare, is exactly what you have observed as well. He made you feel the character so much that you actually became the character. I went to Junior High School in a small city in Utah that is famous for the annual Shakespearean festival. It was great, I used to go every year–but to actually read those words, were magic to me. At first I had a hard time grasping the language, but I was blown away by the feelings they produced. It was one of my favorite college classes. Thanks for posting about this. I am running into some snags in characterization, and this helps. 🙂

    • Glad this one was helpful! It’s really amazing how the tone and emotion and just the humanity of Shakespeare’s characters come through, especially in performance. Even when we aren’t quite sure what they’re saying!

  3. Great piece, thanks for sharing.
    If I can’t feel what my Characters feel, how can I know that I am portraying them properly. How can I know that there emotional state is appropriate for the scene.
    I often use a phrase “we are all mad here!” and I think that if we weren’t mad or verging on crazy, how can we write a book that will attract readers?

    • Love your point here. Even if we want to rein the emotion in so that it’s not so strong as to overpower the reader, we as the author should understand what’s going on and what characters are thinking/ going through.

  4. I love creating characters and giving them their own voice as they each go through the ups and downs of life in their own way. This post has great insight. Thanks for sharing.

    • I totally agree…. it’s important to see characters go through ups as well as downs to get an idea of who they really are. That’s how we round them out…. we see them in different situations.

  5. Oh good. I thought I was the only one who didn’t like Hemmingway.

  6. Pingback: Why it’s wrong to kill off characters needlessly | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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