Emotionally connecting your reader to your characters is the single most important thing you can do as a writer. Or so I've heard. But what about voice? Plot? Structure? Pacing? They're all super important, right? So why such a fuss over emotional connection? And what does that even mean for the writer? Doesn't the emotional connection happen between the reader and the character? Won't it develop naturally as the reader finds things in common with the characters?
This is what I believed until recently. I was reading a book with a great premise, an engaging plot, and a fun character. But as the story progressed, I had trouble connecting with her. I didn't care about her. But it wasn't because she wasn't well written, or I didn't sympathize with the problems she was going through. I did. And the voice was spot-on, funny, in fact. I saw bits of myself in her.
But every time I felt myself being drawn in to her story, she'd do something or say something or think something that seemed a bit off from what the person I'd built in my head so far would do, say, or think. And every time, the emotional connection I was beginning to feel shattered and I found myself starting from scratch, trying to figure out who this character really was.
I began to wonder if the author even knew.
This is when things clicked for me. Did I know everything about my characters, even the stuff that would never show up on the page? Did I really know what had shaped them and what would drive them in the future? I've gotten the "I had trouble connecting" note in the past and have struggled to understand what that really meant.
But as soon as I realized what bugged me about the book I was currently reading, I thought about my own characters. Sure, I'd done character sketches during the planning phase of my novel, but they were only a few paragraphs, if that. They contained facts, not deep emotional, driving forces in my characters' lives. I hadn't stopped to explore what would happen when the pressure came on. Specifically, pressure that was not the result of anything that would happen in my book. By exploring various scenarios, even if they weren't ones I wanted to use in my story, something important would be revealed about my characters. I needed to know how my character would react in these situations, and why. Also, I needed to know exactly why my character wanted the things she wanted, even if she didn't know herself.
The trouble with putting so much emphasis on voice is that your writing will be all voice and no heart. Obviously voice is important. We all know that. But the heart is what will connect a reader to a character on a deeper level. And the heart is revealed in glimpses. Nuances. A glance here. A comment there. As the author, you can only offer these glimpses if you know what's really driving your character and what's at the heart of her actions. Everything she does, thinks, and says has to be consistent with who she is or it won't ring true for the reader.
Discovering the heart of a character is what keeps a reader engaged and digging for clues that will help them know the person they first connected with through voice. To create this kind of experience for your reader, you, as the author have to know your character inside and out before writing even the first word of their story.
So does this mean all is lost if you've already started writing a character you don't know? Of course not. But get to know them. Dig deep. And then re-read what you've already written. Anytime your character does (or says or thinks) something that feels even slightly off, fix it. Even if it means big changes. Don't think the reader won't notice. Readers know when something is off, even if they can't put their finger on exactly what.