Where Are You Going?

Have you ever heard the dreaded phrase ‘I didn’t connect with your main character?’ No? Just me? In this short series of posts I’m going to rip into that phrase and look at some reasons *why* people don’t connect to your main character (MC).

In my first post on the subject I talked about stakes, and how they help us connect to your character. In this post I want to talk about where your character is going. Ultimately, as readers, that’s what we want. We want to go on a journey with your character, and when we do, we’re much more likely to connect.

The easiest way to tell if your character is going anywhere is to look at her at the beginning of the scene and at the end. If she’s not in a different place — if she’s not *changed* — then the scene isn’t taking us anywhere.  This has nothing to do with physical location. In fact, when writers move characters from one place to another physically, that often camouflages the fact that nothing really changed. Think of it more like this: How does the character see things differently?

There are lots of things that can make it seem like things are happening when they really aren’t. One common one is that the  MC meets someone. This is often early in the novel, and perhaps this person that the MC meets is a key person in the story, either an ally or an enemy. So there’s no choice, and the meeting has to happen. Take a minute and look at the scene, then write down it’s purpose. If the purpose is ‘Introduce Secondary Character X’ then the scene isn’t going anywhere. Introducing the character can be a secondary purpose, but the primary thing the scene needs to do is change the main character. That’s who we need to connect to, so they must be part of the purpose.

Compass symbol isolated on white for design

(Note: If you’re writing multiple POVs, it’s the POV character who must have the change. Other characters can change, but if your POV character isn’t the purpose of the scene, you’re likely writing it from the wrong POV.)

If the MC has to meet a secondary character in a scene, think about how it affects the MC. This is one time in life when it’s okay that it’s all about you (the MC). After meeting the character, how does the MC change? Does he see things differently? Does he go in a different direction, or make a decision he might not have made? How does he feel about it? Was he depressed at the beginning of the scene, but now he feels like there’s hope? Was he very sure of his course, but now he’s starting to wonder? There are a hundred different directions you can go — you just have to go somewhere. Without a change, there’s no scene.

Let’s try a simple example. Our heroine finds a magic sword. In fact, it’s the only sword in the world that can kill the dragon that’s terrorizing the kingdom. At the beginning of the scene she doesn’t have the sword, at the end of it, she does, and now she can kill the dragon. Having the sword is the change. Boom. Done. Right?

Not exactly. She has the sword, and that’s a change, and it’s a necessary change. But that’s a physical change, which is really not much different than changing location. What has changed in the character? How is she different, now that she has the sword? She’s been looking for it for a long time, and now she’s got it. What does she feel? How is what she feels different from what she thought she might feel? Maybe she thought she’d be excited. This is everything she ever dreamed of. But now the reality is setting in. She has to fight a dragon. The sword doesn’t seem very big compared to a dragon. It’s the change in your character’s emotions that will help the reader connect.

Go ahead and take a look at your work, and see how you’re doing with this. You can do it scene by scene, if you want. Jot down where your character starts, and how she is different at the end of the scene. Next, ask yourself if that change is visible on the page. Can your reader feel how your MC has changed? You can use this when you’re critiquing, too, and do it for your writing partners. It’s an easy thing to see, once you start looking for it. I’m quite sure some people I’ve read for got sick of me asking at the end of a chapter ‘how is your MC different from where he started the chapter?’ But it’s an important question, and if you answer it, you’ll be one step closer to having readers connect with your character.

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I am a Soldier and a Science Fiction writer. Usually I write about Soldiers. Go figure. I'm represented by Lisa Rodgers of JABberwocky Literary Agency. If you love my blog and want to turn it into a blockbuster movie featuring Chris Hemsworth as me, you should definitely contact her.

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