Characters and Emotions


I’ve written on the topic of Characters a number of times, but I don’t think this is a repeat.

When I first started writing fiction, I would have put myself in the plot-over-characters camp, mostly because I believed, and still do, that story trumps all. But what I’ve since discovered is, in order for a reader to care about the story, he must first care about the characters.

In essence, no good story focuses only on plot or only on characters. In fact, no good story ignores setting or theme, either, but that’s not the topic today.

I’ve discussed in the past what makes a character “engaging,” i. e. why we as readers connect with them. I think there’s another component that makes characters memorable and makes stories come alive: readers connect with the emotions the characters experience.

Author and writing instructor Randy Ingermanson teaches a method of writing a scene using what he terms MRU’s. While I don’t consciously use this method, I find when I critique or edit or revise my own work, understanding the principle behind MRU’s is helpful and actually can maximize the reader’s emotional involvement.

The idea of the MRU—the Motivation-Reaction Unit—is simple. Reactions must flow from a motivating action. However, I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve written, critiqued, or edited a work that reverses that order. I know in my early writing days, I thought I actually was increasing tension by giving a reaction first. Like this.

Dorothy gasped. How could it be? Her wallet was gone. Her credit cards, cash, and driver’s licence were in that wallet. She peered inside her purse, moved her keys, even dumped the contents onto the bench beside her. Still no wallet.

The problem is, readers will process Dorothy’s reaction cognitively, not emotionally. No problem understanding what Dorothy felt or why she felt it. But because the author showed the reaction first, the reader can only wonder why, not also feel the same thing.

In addition, the payoff may actually be a let down if the reader is expecting a bigger something to have motivated the reaction.

Instead, if the proper order is maintained, the reader will process the event, then feel with the character what the author next shows. So the real difference is having the reader understand what the character is feeling versus having the reader enter into the character’s emotions.

Here’s an example of the motivated reaction:

Dorothy moved her keys aside and peered into her purse. Still no passport. She dumped the remaining contents on the table in front of her and rummaged through the odds and end. Her passport simply was not there. She slumped against the seat back. “It can’t be,” she whispered. What good was a plane ticket to England if she didn’t have a passport?

Published in: on September 2, 2008 at 6:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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