There are stories that are entertaining, beautifully written – and entirely forgettable. The minute I’m done with them, I never think of them again. And then there are stories with emotional resonance. The ones that haunt me. My mind comes back to mull them over again and again as I go about my life. I think of them years after I’ve read them, remembering a powerful moment, or a character quirk.
Emotional resonance is that empathetic link some authors are able to create between their characters and their readers. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about as I work on rewrites of my second novel.
It’s important to note, when exploring the topic of emotional resonance, that not every story is going to resonate with every reader. That’s just a fact. The way I internalize a story as I read it, the way I imagine the fully formed characters in my head, will be different than the way you do.
One of the magical things about written stories is that they allow us that space to imagine the details in our own way. It’s why movie adaptations always fall short. No filmmaker can ever get it just “right” because it’s impossible that their vision of the story will match yours exactly, or even remotely.
That said, there are stories that do well in the market place precisely because they strike chord in a lot of people. To extend the metaphor – the chord’s vibrations resonate for most readers, as if there is some communal, emotional understanding of what the writer is communicating, and it runs deeper than the words on the page. It’s an intuitive connection.
What Your Character Wants
I’ve blogged about this specific topic briefly before (“Making Your Characters Want Something“). Specifically, I wrote about how the first fifty pages of my draft (of my first novel) were lagging and I couldn’t figure out why.
I *thought* I had given my character a desire. She wanted, more than anything, to not become her mom. But what I learned through a painful series of rewrites, was that not wanting something is not the same as wanting something else.
Try this. If you have a character defined by his or her desire to not be something, just make them want the opposite. In my book, since my character’s mother was a no-good alcoholic who couldn’t hold a job, I made my main character want a specific job. She wants to be a forest ranger. Because why not? It really didn’t mater what she wanted. She just needed to have something to work toward. And bam – my first fifty pages found an energy they never had before.
Empathizing with a character starts with understanding what the character wants. Many of the books that fall into the category of beautiful-books-I’ll-probably-never-think-about-again have characters who don’t want anything.
Emotional resonance has to do with the reader’s experience of the character’s desire. It’s only when I, as the reader, understand what a character is going through on an emotional level that I’m able to join them, instinctively, on their journey. The trick is, it takes time and tact to set up this kind of engagement.
As the writer, you can’t simply tell readers that your main character had their heart broken before and so now they’re reluctant to trust love. That’s about as moving as diagnostic report. You have to imbue your character with all that distrust, and you have to dive deep into where it comes from. If you can do that, then your readers will engage on an emotional level with the present day action of the story: how the desire they feel (a romance, maybe?) is at odds with their history.
It’s difficult to give examples without offering up spoilers, so I’m going to use a non-fiction example: “A Stolen Life,” the memoir written by Jaycee Dugard about being kidnapped and held captive for eighteen years. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say she escapes in the end (she did, after all, write a book about her ordeal).
Throughout the story she thinks of her mother. From day one, through two pregnancies, through some truly awful shit, she longs for her mother, remembering specifics of what it was like to be held in her arms, how her mom had the power to comfort her. It’s not forced or trite. This girl misses her mom and thinks she will never see her again.
So when you get to the end, to the part where she’s in the police station and she calls her mom for the first time – it’s devastating. I have never cried like that reading any other book. I was balling. I had to put the book down for a minute and call my own mom and just tell her that I love her.
Because I understood, I felt in my heart, what that moment was for this individual/character.
We Have To Be Willing To Cry
The bitch of it all is that, as writers, we will never get that kind of emotional resonance on the page if we’re not willing to feel all those uncomfortable feelings ourselves, to explore them, test words against them, and try to convey them in specific, visceral language.
I think this is what people are talking about when they say you’ll never make your readers cry if you’re not willing to cry yourself.
Historically I have written characters that are emotionally distant. In “142 Ostriches” I soaked the entire family in detachment. They don’t hug, they don’t listen to each other. It wasn’t a conscious decision at the time, but looking back, I think I was afraid to dive into the messy emotions that might have been called for. No regrets though. Emotional detachment worked for that story. I’m very please with how it all came together.
But with my new story I want to write a different kind of character. I want to write anger, and passion, and loneliness along with joy and exaltation. This story is much more epic. The emotional components need to be likewise.
Lately I’m working on a chapter wherein my main character is feeling pretty bitter and I always come away from those writing sessions just cranky AF. I can’t help it. I don’t like being bitter, but it’s what’s called for in the story, and I find I can’t write it if I don’t let myself feel it.
The ability to let myself dive into these uncomfortable feelings, to marinate in them long enough to get them on the page, has been the direct result of getting more serious about meditation.
Sometimes when I’m meditating, I experience waves of emotion. The practice of noticing them, naming them, and (if I’m not too overwhelmed) getting curious about them, has taught me about the many, many nuances of emotion. It’s allowed me to get more familiar with them and to describe them better on the page.
What’s more, mindfulness meditation has taught me that I can let myself feel certain things (like fear and sadness) without becoming overloaded. If I ever feel like I’m too sad, or angry, or whatever, I can always get up and end the meditation, but you know what? I never do.
Because I’m a writer. And when you’re a writer, everything is material.
Not everything I’m writing these days will make the final cut into my new manuscript. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m a big fan of plot. I have no intention of writing 300+ pages full of emotions and nothing else. In short, I intend to be pretty scathing with the old red pencil when it comes time to edit.
But just getting all these messy emotions into my pages makes me hopeful that I’m writing something new, something different than I’ve ever written before, maybe even something… emotionally resonant. I’m excited to see where it all leads.