Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Psychology of Writing: 5 Ways to Create Emotional Connection Between Your Readers and Your Characters by Using "Uncontrollable Circumstances"

When breathing life into a character, many factors are to be considered. However, of these, emotional connection is perhaps one of the most important in creating memorable, believable characters that your readers will remember for years to come. Here are five simple tips to help you achieve “emotional connection” between your audience and your cast of characters by using the power of “uncontrollable circumstances.”

1. The Power of the Uncontrollable
Psychological studies have shown that people tend to feel more motivation to assist and sympathize with individuals who are facing uncontrollable circumstances.

One of these experiments involved an elderly man (a test assistant) falling down on a bus. In one version of the experiment, the man was using a cane to support himself. In the second version, he was carrying a bag filled with alcohol. In the analysis of these tests, more individuals attempted to assist the elderly man with the cane because they perceived that his fall was caused by an uncontrollable circumstance—his age. Oppositely, those who saw the elderly man fall while carrying a large bag full of alcoholic beverages perceived him to be drunk, and therefore felt less inclination to assist him (or feel emotional attachment to him) because his condition was controllable (brought upon himself by choice).

When writing your characters, keep in mind that your readers are more likely to feel emotional attachment to them if they are facing circumstances beyond their control. An uncontrollable circumstance is anything that directly affects the character and, in turn, cannot be overcome directly or initially by your character. In other words: the character cannot simply choose to alter their situation and change the circumstance as a result. An uncontrollable circumstance may include: the death or terminal illness of a loved one, old age, a crippling disease, foreclosure on a house that cannot be afforded anymore, or even a fire-breathing dragon who cannot be slain and ravages the character’s homeland as it pleases. Any circumstance perceived as “uncontrollable” can also qualify as an uncontrollable circumstance.

This brings me to my next point.

2. Provide a Reason—and Make it Good!
Piggy-backing off of that first point are the ideas of reason and cause. Every good story features a conflict, and your main characters should always be at that conflict’s very center. When you strive to create emotional attachment to your fictional cast, be certain to ask yourself two questions: (1) what is the cause of my character’s conflict and (2) for what reason does that cause exist?

Running with the theme of uncontrollable circumstances, let’s say that your character is an athlete who’s dream is to eventually gain entrance into the Olympics. However, one year prior to his debut, this character sustains a leg injury which he is told will never heal enough for him to run again, let alone gain him entrance into the upcoming Olympic games next year. This is the cause of the character’s conflict. For what reason does this conflict exist? Was this athlete injured in a reckless training accident? Crippled by a long-term illness? Perhaps hit by a car while trying to save a child
from the careening vehicle?

Regardless of how far-fetched or down-to-earth the reason for your character’s conflict is, remember that it is vital to have one. The cause and the reason play enormous roles in bringing out emotional attachment in your characters because they reveal the history of your character’s conflict, spotlight your character’s goals and dreams, and pinpoint exactly why you should care about this character in the first place. Remember: the stronger and more believable your character’s reason and cause are, the more emotional attachment you will achieve. The reason behind your character’s conflict can drastically alter the type of emotional response that you receive from your readers.

3. Controllable Circumstances are in the Eye of the Beholder
You must realize that your readers may have differing opinions on what circumstances are controllable and what circumstances are uncontrollable. As a writer, you have the power to shift your reader’s perspective of a seemingly “controllable” circumstance, and thus portray it in a more sympathetic light.

Let’s go back to the example in point one with the elderly man. In the second version of the experiment, the elderly man fell while carrying a bag full of alcohol, apparently drunk (a controllable circumstance), and thus received less help than he did when he fell with his cane. When the same experiment was administered via written scenario testing, the results were the same. However, something interesting occurred when the experimenters added an extra attachment to the test, detailing the addictive effects of alcohol and explaining alcoholism as a “disease.” In this second version of the test, featuring the alcoholism information attachment, the subjects showed a much higher emotional and empathetic response towards the scenario with the elderly man and the bag of alcohol, because they began to view his drunkenness as an uncontrollable—rather than controllable—circumstance.

Similarly, you, the writer and author, have the power to take a controversially controllable situation and render it “uncontrollable.” Consider Robin Hood for a moment. If you simply tell your reader that Robin Hood is a thief who lives in the woods, leads a gang of outcasts, and steals from the rich to
give to the poor, your reader will likely interpret him as a trouble-maker, who is too lazy to work for money, and thus steals from those who have worked hard to build up a comfortable life and fortune. At this point, Robin Hood’s stealing is a controllable factor. It is something that he chooses to do, just as he chooses not a get a job for himself and make a decent living.

However, the moment that you introduce the uncontrollable factor—an unjust ruler who ruthlessly taxes the poor, and sends those who can no longer pay to prison—you have taken the first step towards gaining your reader’s emotional attachment to Robin Hood. Once you introduce the cause—the town poor—and the reason—providing for and protecting those who cannot do so themselves—for his stealing, you have given your reader Robin Hood’s personal motivation for doing what he does. They are suddenly more likely to feel emotionally attached to him because he is daring to face an uncontrollable circumstance that renders everyone helpless. Considering that few would look upon thievery in a positive, wholesome light, it is rather amazing that a simple, uncontrollable factor can make us view at it as such a heroic deed. This is the power of the uncontrollable circumstance.

4. Put your Darkest Dark next to your Lightest Light
Artists will tell you that, when creating dimension, dark and light colors must work together. The darker the shadows, the more emphasis the lighter colors will get, and the more the viewer’s eyes will be drawn to the light areas.

Similarly, when crafting your characters, particularly your protagonists, remember that the darker the situation your character faces, the more emotional attachment you will likely receive from your readers. Make your antagonist dark. Make it ominous and unstoppable—an “uncontrollable
circumstance,” if you would. It doesn’t have to be an all-powerful dark lord or a fierce, fire-breathing dragon to be ominous. A less fantastical antagonist can be just as daunting. It may be a natural disaster, surviving college, overcoming an injury, or thwarting a terrorist attack.

Whatever your antagonist, make it dark. Bring it out in all of its ugliness and let your readers know it is a thing to be feared, or to at least deserve contention.

But, equally as important, don’t forget to portray your character in the lightest light that you can. This doesn’t mean that you should make your character perfect and flawless. It simply means that you should strive to contrast them starkly enough with your antagonist that your readers come to like them and to dislike whatever is opposing them.

5. Face the Uncontrollable
Lastly, to achieve truly emotional attachment, I believe that it is necessary for a character to face their “uncontrollable circumstance.” Does your character have a gambling addiction that is threatening their marriage? Have them rethink their life. Does your character have a crippling fear of tornadoes? Stick them right in the middle of one. Is a Dark Lord threatening to bring eternal darkness upon a world with nobody capable of opposing him? Have your character set out to defeat him.

Your character does not need to overcome their “uncontrollable circumstance” fully. They do not even need to succeed in the attempt. However, for a truly reader-satisfactory effect, I believe it is necessary for your characters to face whatever uncontrollable circumstance is hanging over them, even if they are destined to fail in overcoming it.

Remember, an “uncontrollable circumstance” is one that directly affects the character and, in turn, cannot be overcome directly or initially by your character. This does not mean that the uncontrollable circumstance cannot be overcome at all. It simply means that, initially, your character is not capable of overcoming it, must use an unconventional method for conquering it, or needs outside assistance of some kind in beating it. An uncontrollable circumstance is a seemingly helpless one, with seemingly being the key word.

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