Why were Tom Clancy’s first two books, The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising so readable? Many lowbrow literary critics wouldn’t think they were well written books at all, but then, you can’t please everyone. They sold over a million copies each, so they had to have something—and I’m not talking about having a sophisticated marketing machine behind them.
My opinion? Apart from being good stories, they had believable characters who were real and didn’t mind revealing a little of themselves to readers. His other books? Well, let’s say it shows what an oiled marketing machine can do. Personally, the characters in those books were merely going through the motions. I call them two-dimensional plastic cutouts.
It was printed in the mid-seventies, and some might consider it dated, but I can read John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider repeatedly and still enjoy the complex characters and the enfolding story like I did the first time all those years ago. On something different, if you like magical writing that will move your soul, grab hold of Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills. For stirring action guaranteed to set your hair on fire, read Stephen Coonts’ The Intruders. What makes all those books stand out from the crowd, and there a many others like them out there: characters who display feelings and emotions.
Some books are powerful enough that they can get away with minimal characterization, like James Cobb’s Choosers of the Slain. What subtle characterization is inserted is sufficient for the reader to fill in the blanks without loosing anything. Cobb forgot that in his later books—as do a lot of writers—and that’s why they should probably remain out of print. However, a great many books make it on the shelves that rely purely on action, car chases, gory monsters, and cheap melodrama. Some are even interesting to read, and I have a few, but they don’t do much to set me thinking. It also depends on taste, I guess. Today, everyone is after instant gratification, and that includes many readers. Thinking is work, and readers today pick up a book to be distracted for an hour or two, not to have their illusions shattered, their beliefs questioned, or their worst fears confirmed. Once you start thinking, you cannot rest—a sweeping generalization, I know.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, what am I talking about here? As writers, we all inject emotion into our characters, don’t we? Besides, what kind of emotion are we supposed to inject: streaming tears, cold hate, jilted rejection, unbridled laughter, that first kiss? Well, all of those really, and more. Think of your own life’s experiences, the highs and the lows, then look at your writing. Do your characters have those same highs and lows, or are they simply carried along for the ride as the story unfolds, leaving the reader wondering if that character has a personality at all.
Part of the problem, of course, simply writing a narrative scene is easy—or should I say easier—whether that be a car chase, two guys shooting at each other, or missiles flying. And many writers are quite good at it, attested by the popularity of techno thrillers, whodunit murders, and template romance. Those books sell, but they are like tissues: you read them once and throw them away. They don’t give the reader anything lasting to feel warmly fuzzy, compelled to read that book again. So, as writers, how do we inject that warm fuzzy? Make your characters believable, that’s how. I wrote a bit about that in my article:
In that piece, I touched on some of the mechanics, all useful, but I want to go deeper. The thing is, when writing, the characters don’t have to be all nice guys. It’s okay to make them mean and nasty, but you should make them into something! They need to stick in the reader’s head, generating a genuine response. In other words, characters must be real people. However, making them real takes some hard writing and a measure of skill that only lots of writing will perfect—and sometimes not. Looking at some of my own early books, if I had the time, I would inject more life into a few of my characters. But those books are best left as they are, testaments to my evolution as a writer. Besides, I kind of like how they are anyway.
Getting back to the discussion, how do you inject emotion into your writing? There are several ways, but the starting point is—you want to do it. What this means, if your characters is angry, sad, happy, lazy…whatever, say so! And I don’t mean using writing like:
“That’s a damn lie!” Scott shouted angrily.
Big deal. The guy’s angry. So? Better to write it like this:
“That’s a damn lie!” Scott slammed his fist against the table, making the cutlery jump.
There are lots of different things Scott could have done, but I hope you get the idea. It all comes back to the old adage of ‘show, don’t tell’. In the second example, the reader will see that Scott is angry, because it was demonstrated. If done well, dialogue alone can be a powerful tool for showing emotion.
“That’s a damn lie!”
“Is it? I don’t think so.”
“You’re smirking, but I can sense your scorn.”
“Indifference, darling. You’re hardly worth my scorn.”
Reviewing books, I often winced at what passed for dialogue, but that’s another discussion. Let me say that writing dialogue for some authors can be hell. Without getting sidetracked, simply write the way you would talk. If you are not sure how your dialogue sounds, read it aloud, or have someone else do it for you. Your ears will tell the good from the bad. Emotion can be shown through action as well.
“That’s a damn lie!” Scott shifted the gear lever into ‘drive’ and slammed the gas pedal to the floor, making the Corvette’s rear wheels squeal as the car shot out the driveway.
The old standby is plain old narrative. Well, not so plain if nothing is said. With narrative, the author has a marvelous opportunity to have his characters open up. It doesn’t mean breast-beating at every paragraph, welling tears, gnashing of teeth, endless introspection or confessions. What it does mean is telling the reader something about the character, revealing elements that every story should have: who, what, when, where, how, why. It is all right to have the strong silent type, but that strong silent type will be much stronger if the author tells the reader why he is like that. The author wants to make the reader his partner, and that means allowing the reader to see the character’s human side. A good story is more than a car chase or guns blazing.
When writing that detailed book outline, it might pay to jot down a word or two about those characters and how they feel, instead of merely what they do. At least keep their reactions in mind when you actually start writing. And remember: injecting emotion into your writing can also be fun!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Stefan Vucak is an award-winning author of the sci-fi Shadow Gods series of books. His contemporary political thriller Cry of Eagles has won the coveted 2011 Readers’ Favorite silver medal award, and his All the Evils was the 2013 prestigious Eric Hoffer contest finalist and Readers’ Favorite silver medal winner. His Strike for Honor won a gold medal.