Saturday, May 3, 2014
The Psychology of Writing: 5 Ways to make your Characters “Click” with Readers using Vulnerability, Proximity, Resonance, Similarity, and Shared Adversity
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.
I recently discussed the need for human belongingness and the importance of using factions as a part of building your franchise’s fanbase. Having a shared adversity among your characters grows from a similar root.
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.
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