On Writing: Creating Emotional Impact Through Characters

Cover of Pog, issue of the Swamp Thing by Alan MooreI’ve been teaching an advanced workshop that’s been a lot of fun. I gave them one of my favorite texts, an issue of Swamp Thing by Alan Moore called “Pog.” You might want to read it before proceeding on to the discussion of it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I picked that text because it has a high degree of emotional impact. It was a great starting point for talking about how to create that in a piece of fiction. In discussing how Moore achieved that, we realized that it is primarily constructed through the characters. While it’s nice to see the images, they are not the primary source of the impact.

Here are the five ways that impact is created:

  1. The characters are in a problematic situation with which we, the reader, can identify. While we have never rocketed through space in a ship shaped like a turtle shell, we do know the feeling of exile. We know what it is like to lose a home, and despair of finding a new one.
  2. The characters are acting to solve their problem, even in the face of growing despair. Accordingly, we root for them and their valiant effort.
  3. We see the characters caring for each other, taking care of each other in a way that is loving and endearing.
  4. The characters are freaking adorable. Seriously cute. How can we not love them? I’m reminded of the Aeslin mice Seanan McGuire uses in her urban fantasy series or the fuzzies in H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy series (free on the Kindle!) (also rebooted by John Scalzi). They speak in a way that is absolutely charming and full of wordplay.
  5. And one can’t underestimate the glow of nostalgia that this comic holds for those who loved the original Pogo strip by Walt Kelly.

So what takeaways for character building can one draw from this? Are there axioms that can be applied in one’s own writing? Of course there are, and here’s the list:

  1. Give your characters a real problem. More than one. The shittier you are to your characters, the more people can identify with them.
  2. Make characters act. They don’t need to make the right decision, but they do need to make one, and experience its results. Characters that are simply floating through the story being buffeted by forces outside their control are a stretch to identify with.
  3. Give us something to love about the character, even when they’re unsympathetic.
  4. Don’t be afraid to be a little sentimental. I know the more cynical among you will flinch at that advice, and I’m not fond of very sappy stuff, but in my experience, the stories that lean hard towards the sentimental often do much better than those that do not.
  5. As to whether or not one should rely on paying tribute to other loved texts as an overall narrative strategy, that’s up to you. But one of the important things about such a strategy is that you must allow for the reader who does not know the original text. What you produce must be entertaining to them even without that overlay.

What strategies have I overlooked? Characters are pretty central to stories, and strong, clearly delineated characters will serve you well.

If you’re interested in learning to do more with your characters, check out my online class, Character Building, 9:30-11:30 AM PST, Sunday, March 16 ($89 for former students; $99 for new students).

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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