A Lesson by byPatKeegan

Creating Identification is the number one job of a writer. Without it, your readers will never fully connect to your characters; they'll either lose interest, or stop caring.


The number one thing writers must do without question, is to create identification. It’s why we go to the movies. It’s why we read books. And for the love of God it’s why we write. If your readers do not identify with your characters, your stories will suck regardless of how well your narrative is. It will be lacking an emotional connection and we, as readers will simply not care as deeply about them without that emotional connection.

We want our readers to be happy when our characters are happy, to cry when our characters cry, to laugh when they laugh, and to get pissed off when they get pissed off. We want the readers to want to be our characters in some way. That’s why we fall in love with really great stories, be they film or book, because we connect with the characters and experience what they do.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, maybe not. So then how do we do it?

Identification is created by getting us emotionally involved with the characters. The single best way to get us emotionally involved is by letting us know what the character is thinking.

Most people start with, and stop with, the physical characteristics of emotion— the sweating of palms, the trembling hands, the racing heartbeat, the flushed cheeks, the fevered desire. And it certainly does tell you about the character. But it doesn't do enough.

Let's take an imaginary character, call him Bob. If I tell you Bob is angry, you'd believe me simply because I wrote it. And you all certainly know what angry feels like. I could tell you also that Bob was so angry is face was red, and his hands were trembling, and the infamous vein on his forehead was popping out. That really gives you the impression of angry, right? But still, it's not enough. Why?

Because those are physical responses to emotions, and we all have them. The problem is that because we all have them, they are pretty much all the same. So our physical responses are not unique! But we want our characters to be unique, right?

So let's look deeper.

If you ask yourself what creates those physical responses, you'd tell me its the emotion. But what creates the emotion? Well, thoughts of course! It’s our thoughts at those moments that are unique and different. It’s those unique and different thoughts that allow us to understand the character better, to get closer to them and to care about them: to identify with them. Why? Because nobody thinks about the same things in exactly the same way.

Suppose you were walking down the street with a friend. Out of a dark alley, someone jumps out and shoves a gun in your faces. I'm assuming both of you would be trembling. You both would be frightened. Heck, you both might even wet your pants. But your thoughts would be different. One of you might think oh my God, if I die, whose going to take care of my dog Daisy? while the other one might be thinking i knew i shouldn't have come this way, I just knew it. This is what I get for disobeying my parents.

See how different and unique the responses are? Now you can use those thoughts to enhance the experience with your character's personality and create a deeper connection and understanding between your characters and your readers. For example, if you are writing a character that is under the burden of constant guilt, you can give us their thoughts always in the spirit of that trait, saying things like this happened because I deserve this. In this way, you augment your character in a way that let's us get closer.

If you don’t know the character's thoughts, you don’t know how they feel, and if you don’t know how they feel you can’t get connected emotionally, and if you can’t get connected, you can’t identify, and if you cant identify, well then, you'll just care a whole lot less, and chances are, you'll become uninterested in the story.

Keep this in mind: The reader can never be left wondering what the character is feeling; he must be in the mind of the character at all times.

Here's an example, one with the thoughts of the character masked by physical responses of emotion, and one with the characters thoughts:

Take 1:

Bob's mother slapped him in the face with her open hand. His eyes teared up instantly as the sting of the slap echoed over his features. His cheek burned and his face went as red as a chili pepper from embarassment. You could see by the look in his eye, that Bob became very, very angry.

Not too bad, right? you got the emotion, right? Bob is pissed because he was slapped but also because i told you he was angry (i didn't say he was frightened or happy). But how well do you relate to Bob? do you really care about him at this point? On a scale of 1 to 10, I identify with Bob at about a 3 or 4 max. Why? because I know angry, but I don't know Bob's kind of angry.

Now try this one.

Take 2:

Bob's mother slapped him in the face with her open hand. His eyes teared up instantly as the sting of the slap echoed over his features. He clenched his fists in response. He wanted the b***h to try it again. Give him any reason, just try that one more time. He practically dared er with his eyes.

Now how do you relate to Bob? a little more maybe? I certainly do. Notice in that second piece, I never even stated that Bob was angry or embarrassed, but I'm certain that you connected with Bob on a deeper level because now you are inside Bob's head. And now you know something even deeper about him, that he was so angry that he wanted his mom to try it again, presumably because he could retaliate in some fashion.

You would never have understood my Bob if i had only written the first take.

Finally, keep in mind that you don't have to put thoughts in every paragraph or feel that you have to overdo it. My approach is the "just enough" approach. I put just a thought or two around the characters words or actions that readers know in no uncertain terms where they are at.Certiainly when the character is having physical symptoms of emotions, you bet your life i'm going to drop some thoughts in there so that you'll know what's going on in their head, which will help you identify with the character on a deeper level, and therefore will care more about him.

So give thought a chance and see where it takes you! :)

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Added on February 26, 2013
Last Updated on February 26, 2013

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