Characters come to life when we give them reasons to live

I demonstrated creating memorable character names in Naming Names with Lucky Jones, the one-eared wonder. If creating memorable character names were enough to make characters memorable I wouldn’t be writing this post as a follow up.

Lucky Jones became the memorable”Lucky Jones” because I gave you a reason to remember him; I placed him in a dangerous situation with obvious conflict and obvious threats:
Lucky Jones backed away from The Swede as soon as the knife came out. It didn’t matter that The Swede was as big as any Viking Jones could imagine, it mattered that the knife looked as long as a battleaxe. The Swede swung but Jones was already making for the door and the only thing The Swede caught was Jones’ ear, which the police found the next day under The Swede’s body. Albert Swanson Jones became Lucky Jones and a wanted man that same day.

Let’s ask some questions about the above:

  • Is The Swede male or female?
  • Does Lucky Jones get in lots of fights?
  • Does Lucky Jones have experience with The Swede or is this the first time they’ve met?
  • How is The Swede swinging the knife that it cuts off Lucky Jones’ ear but doesn’t slice through his shoulder, cut off his arm, remove part of his head, et cetera?

The list can be endless and I’ll bet nobody asked them reading the above scene. Imagine how different your reaction would be if the first line was “Lucky Jones backed away from The Swede as soon as she pulled the knife out of her bustierre.”

Wow and hot damn, that’s my kind of woman.

Here’s the real kicker; most readers’ pulses will increase reading the above and increasing pulses – both your characters and your readers – is what this post is about.

His six pages of bike chase left me snoozing.

Beyond Catchy Names
We need to give readers reasons to remember our characters beyond catchy names.

I recently attended a critique group and listened to a fellow read a six page bike chase between a kid and three bullies. He described the bikes, the streets, the traffic, the stores, the kids. At the end of his reading, I said, “Your main character just pedaled his bike all over creation for six pages.”

He nodded.

“So he must be breathing pretty hard.”

An enthusiastic “Yes.”

“Then how come nobody here is?”

Severe? Perhaps. Accurate? You bet’cha. Some people were doodling, others were checking their mobiles… In short, this author hadn’t engaged his readers/listeners. His audience couldn’t feel what his protagonist was experiencing hence weren’t interested if the protagonist pedaled into a wall, over a cliff, into his mother’s waiting arms or the bullies’ pounding fists.

The takeaway is simple: the reader should have the same heartbeat as your protagonist/main character/whoever’s on stage at the moment.

Now let me give you a counter. The character on stage is the antagonist and your antagonist is calmly, cooly, logically planning a terrorist act.

Your reader’s heart should be banging against their chest hoping somebody stops that son-of-a-bitch.

Lucky Jones is memorable because 1) of his name and 2) he’s in an exciting situation.

You need to get your readers invested in your characters for them to care.

Emotion = Energy in Motion
Let’s limit ourselves to making things memorable emotionally (for the record, I use four memorability methods and am demonstrating one here). Consider our example paragraph again:

  1. “Lucky Jones backed away” = we back away from things that disturb us, that we fear, that we don’t like, that we want to avoid, … The reader backs away (even if it’s only a little bit) when they read “Lucky Jones backed away”.
  2. “The Swede” = the definite article and capitalization show uniqueness, identity, someone who’s known for something that separates them from the crowd. Combine with the previous to create anxiety, anticipation of something unpleasant because nobody’s going to back away from “Little Bobby Terrell, the ice cream vendor” unless we give them lots more reason to. But “The Swede”? People accept something unpleasant will happen, something beyond a craving for meatballs or Muppet characters.
  3. “as soon as the knife came out.” = “soon” and “came out”. I’ll ask you a question; was the knife moving slowly? Chances are you imagined the knife coming out in a quick movement. Combined with the previous, more anxiety, more reason to fear.

I could continue through the entire paragraph and you’re probably getting the idea. I’ve created a fearful situation and, if you’ve ever been afraid or felt fear, you’re siding with Lucky Jones, you’re invested in him, his welfare, his outcome. I layer on another kind of threat – police – at the end of the paragraph but only after Lucky Jones has escaped The Swede.

He was threatened, he got away from the threat, now there’s a bigger threat. The police are after him, an “out of the pan into the fire” scenario.

Take the reader on an emotional energy rollercoaster and you’ve given them something to remember.

Next up; Tension.

2 thoughts on “Heartbeats”