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In my forthcoming novel, As Though You Were Mine, my main character, Julie, is confronted with the death of her brother and sister-in-law. When my agent at the time and I sent it around to various editors, we initially received consistent feedback that they simply couldn’t connect with Julie. Readers and editors alike felt as though Julie wasn’t upset enough about the death of her brother.
It wasn’t realistic.
Initially the feedback annoyed me. Not everyone has a beautiful relationship with family members. And if you are estranged as my character Julie and her brother had been, the impact is even lower. What right did everyone have to project their own experiences onto poor Julie?
It took me a bit to figure out a way around this. I didn’t want to change Julie’s feelings about her brother. It’s an important aspect of who she is at the start of the novel and a pivot point for who she becomes at the end of it. And yet I obviously didn’t want readers to close the book before getting through the first chapter.
What I finally learned is that I didn’t have to change who Julie was; rather I had to help show her humanity. This can look a lot of different ways. For some characters it’s a matter of showing what motivates them. For others, it’s showing a secret part of themselves or a vulnerability.
It’s exactly the kind of thing that helps people connect with one another in real life, too.
A few months ago, my father passed away. I am not my characters, but at that moment, I fully related to Julie. I loved my dad, but we had not been exceptionally close for many years. His death wasn’t expected, but it also wasn’t quite unexpected, either. It was not a shock and while it was sad, it was not a punch to the gut.
In other words, I sort of felt like the unsympathetic character.
But if you wanted to find that piece of humanity in me, here’s where you might have found it: a few weeks ago, my sister posted on social media about watching a movie with my stepmother that had them both crying and grieving my dad afterwards. It made me sad, but not because I grieved. I was sad about not being sad. And maybe this is the emotion some people need to see. Later, that emotion also made me think about characterization and ways we help our readers connect, even if they don’t feel and react to situations in the same way as the characters do.
Back when I was solving the problem around Julie, this idea of relatability was the “aha” moment and a valuable craft lesson that I’ve taken with me from story-to-story. For Julie, she did not immediately mourn the loss of her brother, but she deeply felt the pain her mother suffered upon losing one of her children and further, Julie keenly grieved for her four-year-old twin niece and nephew and the loss of their parents, their world. When I showed this on the page, interest in the novel immediately began to shift.
I don’t think we need to love a character in order to relate to them, but we do need to see a character as a round, fully developed person with their own motivations and their own hopes and dreams. Sometimes people talk about characters they “love to hate” and finding that connection is what makes that happen.
If you are struggling to get your readers to connect with your character, consider ways they show fear, love, or defensiveness. Consider ways to have your reader get a peek inside their actions.
Show us their “why”.
Song of the Week
Seems like this would be a natural fit for this post, no?