I read an article a few weeks ago on io9 about how Bones is the heart of Star Trek. As a huge fan of Leonard “Bones” McCoy (both the DeForest Kelley and Karl Urban incarnations), I completely agree. The balance between the emotional doctor and the logical science officer was not only fun to watch, but allowed the show's writers to explore different views on a topic and examine it from several angles. And created most of the best laughs in the series.
Great stories have emotional centers. They have a character who considers the emotional impact of our protagonist’s actions and how the plot events impact the protagonist. When characters are too focused on end goals and results, this heart character stops everyone to point out how a particular plan or action is going to affect others.
In my series, The Healing Wars, Aylin is without a doubt the heart of the tale. She cares about people (especially my protagonist), asks the hard questions, and makes everyone think about how their actions are going to affect the world and people around them. She’s even willing to do what it takes to protect her friends from themselves if she has too. When the stakes get too big and start to overwhelm everyone, she’s the one who brings it down to what matters and makes it all manageable.
Which is a huge benefit to have in any story where “saving the world” is part of the plot. Heart characters allow you to remind readers (and characters) why this monumental goal is personal. It shows how small actions and sacrifices can affect the larger world and bring about change. It takes what is too big to comprehend and makes it small enough to understand.
Take a look at your current WIP and ask:
Who is the heart of your story?
While stories don’t need every character archetype, I think the heart character connects a story in a way that resonates with readers. We love the lovable character. We want to understand why everything that happens matters. The heart character also gives us someone to care about even when the other characters are being less than noble.
What character embodies the emotional questions and ideas readers will feel and ponder?
Any story that explores larger thematic questions needs a heart character to keep those questions grounded. Pondering what it means to be human loses impact when everyone is being rational and acting in ways that real humans wouldn’t. Emotions are messy and irrational, and that side of human nature is worth representing.
The heart character is also useful for asking the questions characters don’t want to think about. The best friend can see why the romantic heroine is sabotaging her relationships, the mother can see why her son is hiding from his friends, the child can ask the innocent questions that only a kid can ask—yet cut right through the BS adults often surround themselves with.
Which character cares for the others, both emotionally and/or physically?
When the protagonist hits the Dark Moment of the Soul or the All is Lost moment in the story, a heart character is often the one who helps them through it. No matter how many mistakes have been made, how many people have been pushed away, or how bad the choices to get there were, the heart character forgives—even if they make the protagonist earn that forgiveness.
The heart of your story will capture the hearts of your readers, so it’s worth spending a little extra time to get this character right. And if you discover you don’t have one—decide which existing character would be stronger if they were a little more emotional and focused on the people around then. You might just find your breakout character readers will love.
Who’s the heart of your story? Who’s the heart of your favorite story?
Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing:
In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel.
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.
She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.