Monday, March 29, 2021

4 Ways to Create Emotional Peril in Your Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you can’t get readers to emotionally connect with your novel, they won’t read your novel.

When you pick up a novel, what keeps you reading?

The desire to see what happens next? The fear that something horrible will happen to your favorite character? The need to see it all turn out for the best? The need to know what happens next or what it all means? Maybe all of these at different times in the book.

No matter what hooks a reader about a book, they’ve made an emotional connection with it. They care, and don't want to see the characters get hurt. But the wonderful thing is, once you've made that emotional connection, "hurt" takes on a much broader definition.

The emotional peril a character faces is just as important as the physical peril.

Probably more so, because readers know a major character isn't likely to die, so they don't worry as much about the outcome (unless it's Game of Thrones, then all bets are off). But you can destroy a character emotionally without physically hurting them. They can survive, yet never be the same (and if you're giggling in glee over the very thought, you're my kind of writer).

Once you get your emotional hooks into readers (pun intended), they'll follow you anywhere. There's almost a pathological need to see the characters through whatever devious and wonderfully evil plot you've created for them. Sure, readers know the protagonist will survive, but there's no guarantee they'll survive unscathed.

Here are four ways you can put your characters into emotional peril:

1. Make their worst fear come true

We all have things that scare us, and the thought of facing this fear is almost as scary as the fear itself. Give your character a cringe-worthy fear and then force them to face that fear to get what they ultimately want. Maybe they overcome it, maybe they don't, but it'll be so rich with emotion it'll be a moment your readers won't forget. Better still, readers will see this coming and dread it up until the moment it happens, keeping the tension high.

Pro tip: This is especially useful during a major turning point in your plot when the stakes are at their highest and the protagonist can't afford to fail.

(Here’s more with The Core of Every Novel: The Big Want & The Big Fear)

2. Put someone they love in jeopardy (double points if it's someone vulnerable)

A risk to a loved one can be more horrific than a risk to oneself, and protagonists can suffer greatly when people they care about are in danger because of them. If it's someone who can't defend or save themselves, it's even more emotionally charged. Readers know secondary characters are usually fair game, so even if they think that funny sidekick is safe, deep down they know something bad could actually happen to them.

Pro tip: This is a great way to get a character invested in the plot’s core conflict, because now it's personal.

(Here’s more with What’s the Emotional Core of Your Character?)

3. Make them do something they're morally opposed to

There are lines people swear they won't cross under any circumstances, but apply the right pressure points, and anyone will do anything. When readers see a character is up against that line, they start to worry, and the more they dread that line might be crossed (with terrible repercussions, of course) the faster they read to see the outcome. And once it happens, they're grieving right along with character.

Pro tip: This is handy when you want to show just how far the protagonist is willing to go to resolve the problem and get what they want.

(Here’s more with Three Ways Moral Dilemmas Can Strengthen Your Novel)

4. Have them screw up—badly

Even good intentions can go horribly, horribly wrong, and sometimes protagonists make mistakes—huge mistakes—that cost lives, get people in trouble, or even open a doorway to a major evil. Since heroes are, well, heroes, your protagonist is going to feel terrible about this and be wracked with guilt. Your readers will sympathize and want to see if that poor soul finds the redemption they'll no doubt crave.

Pro tip: This is a fun way to shake up a story and keep it from being predictable. It's even better if this mistake A) causes the protagonist to have to face their worst fear, B) puts someone they love in jeopardy, or C) forces them to do something they’re morally opposed to.

(Here’s more with 7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions)

Emotional peril is a danger that readers can relate to, and when they relate to a character, they usually care about that character.

The more a reader connects emotionally to your story, the more likely they are to enjoy it (and talk about it to all their friends). Caring increases the investment in the story. It makes them want to know how the story will turn out and if the characters they’ve emotionally invested in are going to be okay. Victories and emotional rewards will be all the sweeter because of the lows, and the risks the protagonist took to overcome, avoid, or suffer through them.

Tug at the reader’s heartstrings and the fingers will keep turning the pages.

Take five minutes and identify the moments of emotional peril in your manuscript. Look at how often your protagonist’s emotional health is in danger versus their physical health.

Is your protagonist ever in emotional peril in your novel?

*Originally published at Writers in the Storm, June 2014. Last updated March 2021.

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thanks Janice. Excellent article. Going away to up the peril.

    1. Glad you liked it! Whoohoo, that's awesome. It's so much fun :)