“Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”—Neil Gaiman, Fahrenheit 451 Introduction (via irenalikestuff)
Sometimes you need to remind yourself that you were the one who carried you through the heartache. You are the one who sits with the cold body on the shower floor, and picks it up. You are the one who feeds it, who clothes it, who tucks it into bed, and you should be proud of that. Having the strength to take care of yourself when everyone around you is trying to bleed you dry, that is the strongest thing in the universe.
It kinda drives me crazy, whether reading fic based on an American show or a British show, and the characters are, if it’s American, speaking in British English, and if it’s British, speaking in American English. It really distracts me from the characters I’m familiar with from the whatever the show is because my brain is trying to replace whatever word(s) I cannot picture the character ever saying (like Jack O’Neill asking someone if they would “Fancy a beer?”, I actually would hear him say “you wanna beer?” instead.) I understand that we have different ways of speaking, but if you watch the show then wouldn’t you have an idea of how the character speaks? Isn’t there ways to asks for someone to help “pick” through and make it “more British” for the British show fic or “more American” for the American show fic, if you’re not sure? I don’t know, maybe I’m just too picky, but it really does distract me from a story that is probably possible pretty good.
Then there are the writers that say “I don’t care if they’re American/British characters, I’m gonna write in British English (for the American show)/American English (for the British show) anyway whether you like it or not” (well, not in those exact words, but that’s how my brain takes it as). That really bugs me and kinda turns me off of a fic sometimes if the writer says something like that, which I have seen done in the past.
I can overlook this if it’s not too prevalent and if the story and writing are otherwise good. But in general, yeah, this bugs me too.
One of my favorite parts of being a beta, though, is correcting non-American English so that it reads as American. (Luckily, I currently beta semi-regularly for THREE non-Americans, haha.) I don’t know why I love it so much, I just do. I think it’s because English is crazy and weird and it’s fun to think about how an American would typically say something. For example, in one story, the author had Jack O’Neill describing a woman as “slim”, and I had to think about why it sounded weird to me, and explain to the author that Americans usually use the word “slim” to describe objects, not people. And if it is used to describe a person, it’s probably a magazine headline or your great-aunt using it, NOT Jack O’Neill. See what I mean!? It’s a word that means EXACTLY the same thing in the US and the UK, but it’s coded differently, used by different demographics, etc. I just find it fascinating.
And now I’ve hijacked your rant to babble about a semi-related topic. Heh. :-)
At some point in your life, you’ve experienced magic.
It might have appeared as a sudden spark of unexplainable creativity, the lyrics of a deeply moving poem, the chemistry between two individuals meeting for the first time, the notes of a concert, the dedicated synchronization of a routine, the innovative strokes of an artist’s brush…
An overwhelming sense of connection bound you in the moment. You felt inspired, thrilled, advanced, even enlightened. You feel nostalgic each time emotions of this memory are triggered by a sound, a word, an image, a touch, or a smell. The experience of this moment cannot be put any other way: it is pure magic.
As writers, we strive to create this inexplicable magic through words, with the ultimate goal of connecting with our readers. In giving our readers this sensation of “magic,” we instill a feeling of nostalgia within them that they will carry for the rest of their lives.
In this article, I’ll be discussing a unique, psychological-based approach to creating this connection, built on collected research from noted organizational expert and psychologist Ori & Rom Brafman. Read on to learn five ways in which you can make your book and characters “click” with your readers.
1. The Power of Vulnerability
No, that title is not an oxymoron. There is power in vulnerability, specifically as it relates to the way we humans communicate with each other. This same power can be transcribed into your writing as the first step in achieving that magical connection with your readers.
There are two forms of communication—transactional language and connective language. Transactional language ranges from informal speaking rituals (“Hi there. Good morning. How are you?”), to small talk, to discussing things of everyday importance (hobbies, favorite foods, sports team, etc.). Connective language is a much more intimate kind of communication that involves the relating of experiences, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are deeply personal to the speaker.
While both types of language are essential in your writing, it is connective language that will create the strongest bonds between your readers and your characters. This is because humans are most likely to respond to an individual’s most personal thoughts (vulnerability) with their own most personal thoughts. When entrusted with another’s private words, humans not only tend to respond in kind but also begin to form a deeper relationship with the individual they are sharing thoughts with. The deeper the exchange of thoughts, the stronger this bond becomes.
One experiment on connective language involved college students responding to a computer’s pre-determined chat questions. Computers using transactional language would ask students simplistic, impersonal questions (“What is your favorite color?” “What classes are you taking now?”), with the experimental question being “Have you ever done anything you are ashamed of?” When faced with this question, almost every student responded vaguely (“Yeah, I guess I have.”) or chose not to answer the question.
However, something interesting occurred in the connective language testing group. In this group, the computer would instead say to the students (paraphrased here), “This computer does not always operate as it should. Sometimes it shuts down before students can save their work and the work is lost. Sometimes it loads programs slowly and cannot connect to the internet. Have you ever done anything you are ashamed of?” Even though the question was the same, the connective language made students empathize with the computer and connect with it on a deeper level. Students began answering the question in very personal ways, listing things they had done to disappoint their parents, harmful addictions, failures at school, and other deep, emotive feelings.
When you write characters, particularly those with whom you want your readers to connect the most, keep in mind the power of vulnerability. The more that your character “tells” the reader (either through thoughts, first-person narrative, or even intimately to other characters) about their personal life, beliefs, values, struggles, and feelings, the more likely the reader is going to empathize and feel attached to this character.
2. Proximity Brings Characters Closer
Study after study has shown that people who live close to each other, sit next to each other in class, and work in the same department are most likely to befriend or “click” with each other (negative factors notwithstanding). This is not due to convenience of proximity, but because of the consistent appearance of the other individual.
A study on this phenomenon selected four women of nearly identical size, weight, and physical attractiveness to attend a regular college course at a local university. One woman attended every day of class, one attended half, one attended only a third, and one attended none at all. The women were instructed to sit at the front of the class and to enter and exit the class without speaking to, or interacting with, any of the other students. At the end of the semester, students were shown pictures of all four women and asked if they recognized them. Most students claimed that they did not remember ever seeing the women (the class had hundreds of students), with the rest of the class claiming that the women looked familiar but they could not place where exactly they had seen them. A survey was then administered to the class, asking students to rate the women on different levels (“How friendly does this woman seem?” “How likely would you be to befriend this woman?”).
The results were astounding. The woman who had attended all of the classes scored the highest in all factors, with each subsequent woman’s attendance rate directly affecting her scores. Even though the students could not mentally recall seeing these women, their subconscious had registered the women’s appearances. The mere fact that one specific woman appeared in class more than the other three (even without her ever speaking to the other students) made students more likely to “like” her and perceive her positively.
Of course, your characters will have certain negative and positive characteristics that will affect your reader’s perception of them. But from the perspective of mere face value, your readers are most likely to feel attached to characters who get the most “page time.” This can especially be seen with minor, background characters. Those that are given the most action and most roles in the story are the ones who the reader will most likely connect with (whether on a positive or negative level). It works for antagonists, too. A villain or minion who is given a larger page count than the others is the one that readers are most likely to revere as a character.
3. Resonance Builds Relationships
Unlike vulnerability and proximity, resonance is a magic that must be cultivated internally before it can be effective externally. The key to resonance is “presence”—the ability to passionately portray something so that others are “caught up” by it.
One of the easiest ways to create resonance through your writing is to simply write passionately. I know that it isn’t always easy to sit in a chair for three hours and beat away at a keyboard, but when you love your topic and your story, that love will seep into your words no matter what. To quote English writer Samuel Johnson, “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” Let your passion for your writing flow through you. Simply enjoy putting words on the page, and this passion will manifest itself to your readers—through your sentence structure, your imagery, even the phonetics of the words you choose. These all blend together to showcase your passion, and if there’s one thing you should know about passion, it’s this: passion is contagious.
A second way to generate resonance on the page is to use your personal experiences to flavor your scenes and characters. If you have been through an accident, a birth, a trauma, a wedding, a battle, or a disease, you are more likely to write about these things with passion. This is also the key to writing nostalgia. Reach back in your mind to sensations and thoughts that carry a nostalgic flavor and put them into words. Nostalgia is one of the more powerful emotions at the writer’s disposal because it creates an inner sense of longing, bliss, and “magic” in the reader.
The third way to create resonance through writing is to dive into your character’s emotions and feelings. When you detail the agonizing pain (or the euphoric happiness) that your character is facing, you force the reader to feel these emotions, too. Studies have shown that when individuals are exposed to images of others in pain, their own brains’ pain sensors are activated (as though they themselves were experiencing the pain). Humans are very empathetic creatures. As writers, we can use this in-born empathy to our advantage when creating emotional attachment and interest in our characters.
4. Similarity: Quantity Trumps Quality
It’s no surprise that we are most interested and apt to favor other people who have things in common with us. Perhaps what is more shocking is that (according to psychology) it’s the quantity of these things, rather than the quality, that counts.
A research team gave a Q&A form to a group of student test subjects. On the form, the subjects answered questions of interest, ranging from “What is your favorite fast food?” to “What is your religion?” After these forms were accepted and processed, the researchers gave a second form to each student, which they claimed was “from another student.” Some of these forms matched the student’s interests 100%, while others agreed on only major issues and others on only minor issues. The students were then asked to evaluate the other person based on the form they received: Were they likely to befriend this person? Was this person cool? Fun? Unique? And so on.
Results showed (not surprisingly), that the forms that matched the individual student’s preferences 100% were most highly regarded. The interesting discovery came when researchers evaluated those forms in which only the student’s major or minor issues were matched. The result revealed that there was no difference. Regardless of how major the issue was (religion, political stance, etc.) or how minor it was (favorite fast food restaurant, eye color, favorite music, etc.), it was the number of things students had in common (and not the quality of them) that determined their favor of the other like-minded “student.”
This is one reason why it’s important to have variety among your characters. In making each character unique, with different flaws, interests, skills, appearances, and fears, you are increasing the odds that you appeal to a specific type of reader in your audience. This is why many writers stress the importance of having a relatable, interesting, and audience-specific main character. In writing for the young adult audience, for example, you will want your main character (and supporting characters) to speak specifically to that demographic. Your main character should have similar struggles, dreams, fears, and thoughts to that of your target audience. This does not mean that your characters can’t have variety outside of your target audience, but it does mean that each character should fill a specific “social role” and speak to a specific part of your readership as a result. Your protagonist should—ideally—speak to your target audience the most.
5. Shared Adversity is the Strongest Bond
There’s a reason why franchises such as The Walking Dead and Attack on Titan have become so popular—these series showcase a struggle against insurmountable odds; even more importantly, they portray shared adversity among an “inner group.” Not surprisingly, this is the fifth and final step in achieving the “click” between your readers and your book of characters.
A shared adversity is any struggle (the badder, the better) that your characters face together as a part of an “inner group.” An inner group is also known as a framed community—a small gathering of individuals whose stance and struggles segregate them from the outside world. This creates an “us VS them” mentality among the group, which draws members of the group closer together, boosting individual vulnerability and proximity, and as a result, resonance and similarity. In The Walking Dead, survivors of the zombie apocalypse (the shared adversity) represent this “inner group.” In Attack on Titan, the inner group is the Survey Corps—an elite rank of soldiers who fight against brutal titans (the shared adversity).
The greater the shared adversity is—the more intimidating and powerful it is—the stronger your bond among the inner group (and between the reader and the characters) will become. Stories of survival thrill the human heart because these stories create a spark—a click, if you would—within the reader. The reader feels the comradeship, the struggle, and the need to belong, and it excites them.
Shared adversity can also be used to connect directly to the reader. For example, if you are targeting a specific demographic—let’s say young adults again—then you could try to choose a shared adversity that would connect with the reader, thus including him or her in the “inner group” with your character(s). You may choose the shared adversity of “fitting in at school” or of “being forever alone,” for example. These can be very effective in pulling your reader into your book and emotionally investing them in your characters. However, simply showcasing an inner group and shared adversity among your fictional cast is often more than enough to do the trick. Remember when I said that passion is contagious? Well, so it a shared struggle when it’s well-portrayed. Readers want to resonate with characters. Give them a good, solid reason to, and you can bet they will.
Tying it Together
Seek ways to make your characters vulnerable. Let readers see their hearts and souls. Let readers know what your characters love and hate and believe—what they live and fight and die for, what they fear, what they feel. Use proximity to your advantage. Give your characters well-proportioned time on the page, especially if they are minor characters you wish to bring out. Showcase your resonance by writing with passion and by using your personal experiences to bring a sense of realism to your characters. Use similarity to your advantage by crafting a unique cast where each character has a social role in appealing to your audience types. Lastly—perhaps most importantly—remember the power of shared adversity among the inner group.
Vulnerability, proximity, resonance, similarity, and shared adversity—it is possible to use any single one of these things in your novel to great effect. But use all of them together and you will have begun to intimately connect—to click—with your reader. And once you have clicked with them, they will never forget the magic your words created in their minds.
For additional research and further reading, check out Sway and Click written by Ori & Rom Brafman.
Andreja Pejic’s life has already been tumultuous, spanning time in a Serbian refugee camp as a child, to becoming one of the most famous models in the world.
That alone would be enough to fuel one documentary, but the real hook is the uncertainty of Pejic’s future. The fashion world is notoriously fickle, and since many of Pejic’s most high-profile jobs played with the idea of her being a “male” model working with womenswear designers, it’s possible her career will wane now that she’s open about her gender identity.
As well as being a documentary about Pejic herself, Andrej(a) cannot avoid exploring the fashion industry’s current attitudes toward transgender individuals.
Oh, I didn’t know Andrej was transgender. She’s one of the most beautiful models I’ve seen either way. So brave to come out when as it says in the article, her “standout feature” as a model has been as a beautiful man. I really hope people will keep supporting her career!
Note: Stories, facts, and information provided here are not meant as encouragements for writers to simply insert into their works. Additional research may be needed. They should only be used as inspiration and to help with understanding how cultures are put together. Please use this knowledge to inform your own culture creations without full appropriation. Find the rest of the series here.
Egalitarian means that the society values the equality of its members and does not delineate tasks based on gender, age, or size. Jobs are given as best fit individuals’ abilities—those who are better at hunting hunt, those better at finding berries are gatherers, those with a gift with children are asked to watch them. The smaller the population, the easier it is to hold an egalitarian mindset in a culture, thus foraging societies most often display this social organizational structure, though it’s not limited to them.
The individuals of these societies have no real authority over each other. As a result of this, effective means of protection from coercion by members seeking to build more status for themselves through the collection of wealth via food are lacking.
Sharing is an essential ideal for egalitarian societies. It keeps everyone equal and prevents hoarding and the accumulation of wealth and status. The killing of large game automatically affords the hunter a high status as the kill is his and he may become proud. Some cultures practice a tradition called “the insulting of the meat,” which involves the members of the group to spit on and insult the quality of the meat to keep the ego of the hunter in check. Following this, all members are given equal portions of the kill, and no hard feelings are borne toward those doing the insulting. It’s simply tradition, not personal.
The acquisition of possessions is allowed when framed in situations such as gambling.
Egalitarian societies utilize one of the two return systems to prevent or limit the acquisition of wealth, power, and status:
Immediate-return system: Food is eaten the same day or in the following days, not processed or stored. Societies utilizing immediate-return systems are characterized by the following:
Social groups must be flexible and constantly changing.
Individuals choose whom to reside with, quest for food with, trade and exchange with, and take part in rituals with.
People are not dependent on specific people.
Relationships stress sharing, but do not involve long-term binding commitments.
The other return system for societies is the delayed return system, which is by nature not egalitarian:
Delayed-return system: Rights over valued assets such as technical facilities, food processing and storing, materials, and wild products improved by human labor are given to individuals. Farming cultures are intuitively delayed-return systems with some immediate-return activities often associated with low status. Societies utilizing delayed-return systems are characterized by the following:
Depend on a set of ordered, differential, defined relationships.
Implied binding commitments and dependencies.
Mobility and flexibility are requirements for egalitarian societies. Nomadism—moving from place to place, the opposite of sedentism—is fundamental. This distributes people across the land in relation to the amount of food resources available. It also allows people to segregate themselves from those they are in conflict with. The possibility of movement acts as a leveling mechanism between individuals.
Leaders are essentially non-existent. Decision-making is made modestly, with opinions given and generously considered, however no one person’s opinion holds more clout than any other.
The ability to attach and detach at will from groups and relationships, to resist the imposition of authority by force, to use resources freely, to share as equals, to obtain personal possessions without entering dependent relationships allows for egalitarian societies.
How does this help a writer? Not all your societies have to be huge, sprawling cities. You can get a lot of conflict out of a foraging group. Not to mention, these are all things you need to take into consideration when figuring out your society: What’s the hierarchy like? If you want an egalitarian, equal society, what are the checks and balances that keep people seeking power under control? Here’s a tip: The larger your civilization, the less likely they are to be egalitarian. Someone will always be trying to beat out other people. That in and of itself creates strife. Don’t forget about that. Always remember there are things going on in the background societies that your main plot overlay. Play with that. How is the wool that the dyer is withholding to drive up prices going to impact your story line? Will your character need more money than they have in order to buy the materials for their new disguise? There are all kinds of things you can bring in.