Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Emotional Connection

By Vicky Alvear Shecter

JH: You got a sneak peek of this week's author on Sunday, and here she is today to talk to us about emotionally connecting with your characters even if they're different from you.

Vicky Alvear Shecter has a fantastic (and quite funny) way of looking at history and her non-fiction books Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen and Alexander the Great Rocks the World entertain and well as educate. I just picked up her debut novel, Cleopatra's Moon, at her book launch last week, and I'm eagerly devouring it as we speak.

Take it away Vicky...

Thanks for having me here, Janice!

An interviewer recently asked me what a teen girl today might have in common with the main character of my novel, who just happened to be a princess in ancient Egypt.

“Every teen girl has mother issues,” I replied. “No matter what the era, most girls, at some point, have to come to terms with the process of separating from their mothers, both in terms of identity and life choices. Cleopatra Selene was no different.”

The question, though, got me thinking about the importance of connecting with the core emotional experiences of our character no matter what their outward circumstances. The best books seem to do this almost effortlessly.

For example, many of us have fallen in love with Harry Potter, Katniss (Hunger Games), and the boy (The Graveyard Book), even though most of us can safely say that we’ve never been accepted to wizarding school, have never fought to the death in a televised arena, or been brought up in a graveyard by ghosts.

The fascinating settings and circumstances may have drawn us in to their stories, but we stayed because we connected deeply with their internal, emotional journeys.

The essential plot of Harry Potter, for example, could be summed up as, “orphan boy learns he is a wizard, has many adventures as he grows up, and ultimately faces off with an evil wizard.”

But Harry’s emotional journey was way more complex—it was about finding a real family; about being loyal to friends; and discovering that that while he had the capacity for evil inside of him, he could overcome it by choosing love.

Readers stuck around for the emotional journey, not just for the Quidditch games and dragon fights (as spectacular as they were!).

Another example: a historian friend asked me about the way I described Cleopatra Selene’s feelings when she was taken to Rome. “Plutarch never said she was a slave,” he pointed out.

“I never said she was a slave,” I explained, “only that she felt like one.” There’s a huge difference.

Think about the average teen girl—if you take away her “right” to the car and/or phone, and then require that she do an extra chore or two, she’s likely to wail that she feels like a slave. (I speak from experience!) But her reaction is really about the rage of being on the cusp of adulthood and still not being in charge of her own life and destiny.

In Cleopatra Selene’s case, she was taken from her home against her will, had to live under the thumb of the man responsible for the deaths of her parents, and lost the sense of power and autonomy that she enjoyed in Egypt. All these things, I believed, would make her feel like a slave, even if technically, she had not been put on the auction block and sold.

I’m pretty sure that when editors reject a manuscript with comments such as, “Sorry, I just didn’t connect with your character,” what they really mean is “I didn’t get wrapped up in his or her emotional journey.” We give plenty of attention to the plot of our stories. We should probably spend as much time, or more, making sure that our character’s emotional journey is as compelling as her physical one.

About Cleopatra's Moon

Selene has grown up in a palace on the Nile with her parents, Cleopatra & Mark Antony--the most brilliant, powerful rulers on earth. But the jealous Roman Emperor Octavianus wants Egypt for himself, and when war finally comes, Selene faces the loss of all she's ever loved. Forced to build a new life in Octavianus's household in Rome, she finds herself torn between two young men and two possible destinies--until she reaches out to claim her own.

This stunning novel brings to life the personalities and passions of one of the greatest dramas in history, and offers a wonderful new heroine in Selene.