Psychology has given us such a wonderful understanding into human behaviour that’s it’s a veritable gold-mine for writers. It not only lets us understand our characters on a deeper level, but also our readers. Those fellow humans — that we’re asking to trade their money and their time in return for consuming our words — have picked up your book for a reason. And whether its romance like the ones I write, a thriller or a prehistoric space fantasy, they’re looking for something. Six certain ‘somethings’. As a writer, if you have these six factors present then you’ve built a solid foundation for a book they won’t put down. How do I know? Because psychology says so 🙂
A character we’re drawn to
This can be easier said than done, but it’s vitally important. Humans are wired to connect. From mirror neurons, to the ability to feel empathy, to the dose of dopamine and rush of oxytocin we feel when we connect with another human being. It’s been woven into our wiring because once we developed as social beings then amazing things happened. We built villages and cities, sanitation and hospitals, cars and Boeing 747’s.
So your reader needs to be drawn to your character. The key words here are ‘drawn to’. They don’t have to like them, there’s lots of characters we don’t like. But we have to respect them…and be fascinated by them. How do we do this? I think there’s two factors you need to know about your character to achieve this:
- Know their backstory – what made them this way? Why is George a womanising drunk, or Jasmin a backstabbing cheerleader? Understand their wound — deep seated and sometimes totally unconscious — and how it shapes their choices, and you’ll understand them. Drip feed this information to your reader so they understand what has shaped your characters behaviours.
- Know their Goal – know what your character is out to achieve. This will be born of their backstory and deeply impacted by their wound. More on this next…
A character that is challenged
I’ve talked about this in my previous post Why Readers Read– story was evolution’s first virtual reality. Our brains engage with it because subconsciously we’re looking to learn, and that’s exactly what your plot is all about. We safely get to see how things that might happen in our life, or things that could never happen in our wildest imagination, could turn out, and what the consequences of those choices would be.
To challenge your character they need to have a goal. It’s something we all understand. Chasing our childhood dreams, our heart-felt wish, the job/life/pipe-dream that we’ve always wanted (but isn’t necessarily what we need). And then you need to set up road blocks. Quite a few small ones, but also big road blocks. Lots of them. Ones that seem insurmountable. Because we know, almost instinctually, that that’s how we learn about life — that our happily ever after is possible, or that life can involve heart-twisting tragedy (e.g. My Sisters Keeper…thank you Jodi Picoult…).
Now the next two points are a contrast that can be hard to capture. It’s a balancing act every author has to negotiate. On one hand, the brain craves similarity, consistency, predictability. It’s what makes us feel safe and in control. It’s why most popular music is structured around the same handfuls of chords and why jazz, with its unpredictability and bending for musical rules, is an acquired taste. It’s why the saturation of super-hero movies – superman, spiderman, wolverine, the fantastic four, Captain America, please don’t make me list them all – continue to gross the equivalent of some countries national economy.
In the land of the written word its why plot structure works. It’s why tropes work. It’s why covers for genres follow a similar themes and rules. So as an author you need to make sure your reader has a sense of what they’re in for…and then don’t disappoint them.
But our grey matter loves new and interesting. When presented with novel stimuli it lights up, it hones in the senses so it can explore and learn. It triggers our reward pathways and sends a flood of feel good chemicals through your synapses. Our attraction to the never-been-seen-before has given us chemotherapy, the Boeing 747 and Mars Bars. Curiosity is what has your reader clicking on your cover or picking up your book.
This means you need to put your own spin, a surprise, a ‘whoa, didn’t see that coming’ twist on what their brain was predicting. This is why modern spins on age-old fairy tales work, why romance — with its standard formula — continues to make big money. Readers want to see what wonderful, unexpected trip your words can take them on.
Something to capture their curiosity
What’s going to capture their curiosity? Questions. The human love for questions gave us cheese – hmmm, I wonder what would happen if I curdled this milk and then compressed it? Heck, what if I then grew mould through it? Over it? Human curiosity gave us equality – why aren’t coloured people/women/people with disabilities able to access what everyone else can? Our brain doesn’t stop asking questions because it know that’s how it learns and evolves.
Curiosity is what’s going to keep that magical chemical concoction swimming around your readers’ brains and ultimately keep them reading. This means your books needs to be driven by questions. The big question – such as will Frodo get to Mount Doom? But also all the little interesting questions along the way – like will Strider take the throne? Will loyal Sam have his happy ever after? What is twisted, sad Golum’s karma? I could keep going seeing as my son had me watch the movies about a gazillion times, but you get the gist.
Ultimately there’s one mega-question that encapsulates every one of these. And I propose that every scene in your book needs to have this question hanging over it, essentially defining it. I’m suggesting that each chapter needs to finish on this question. It’s what will keep your reader turning those pages. Because their mind will be asking the most important mega-question – what happens next???
Our brain is driven by emotion. I know we like to think we’re rational beings, applying the rules of logic calmly and rationally to those little and not-so-little decisions, but our every thought, our whole perspective is coloured by emotion. And rather than convince you by giving examples of emotion’s salience in our life, I thought I’d introduce you to a man called Elliot.
Tragically, Elliot lost a small section of his prefrontal cortices during surgery for a benign tumour. Before the surgery Elliot had been a model father and husband, holding down a high-level corporate job, with an IQ in the top 3%. But the operation changed everything. Afterwards, Elliot couldn’t make a decision; whether to use a blue or black pen, what to have for lunch and where to park his car. He lost his job, his wife, and was forced to move back in with his parents. Why? Because Elliot could no longer feel emotion. As a result, he was completely detached and approached decisions as if he was in neutral — every option carried the exact same weight.
It turns out, emotions are the weight in the scales of choice.
What does this mean for your reader? Well, if the reader can’t feel what matters and what doesn’t, what’s important and what isn’t, then nothing matters. So as a writer, you need to convey not just what happens (the action), but also how this affects your protagonist, and how your protagonist feels about the events (the reaction). That is what your reader is going to connect with. Without emotion, it will be neutral, boring…put down and walked away from.
Does your book have these 6 ingredients? Is there anything you disagree with? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Have a wonderful week,