Hi, and welcome back.
Last week, I ran a poll on Twitter to find out what authors thought about Emotional Engagement.
The most surprising response was “What? I never heard of it.”
I included that option trying for humor but turned out to be an honest to goodness answer.
I’ll start by illustrating the concept.
An old woman died in bed. Her son was with her.
Sad, maybe, but we aren’t engaged. We are not sharing emotions with one or more of the characters, we are not feeling emotions for the characters.
Now, let’s try it this way:
He stroked her snow-white hair. The wrinkles on her face told the story of a life well-lived. Some were from sadness, some from mirth. He had put some of both there. He gently touched her cheek. Her light frame a small lump under the blanket. The slow and shallow rise and fall of her chest made her seem asleep. He knew better. He knew the sickness was winning. It was ravaging her inside. He was impotent. How? How had this happened? It should be him. He was the one that had partied and carelessly threw his life away. She had always been there. To care for him. To advise him. To teach him. To love him. Now there was nothing he could do. She was leaving, forever. He will be alone and will never be able to tell her he loved her. The room seemed to become colder, he realized the shallow movement was gone. So was she. She was finally resting, free of him and his wild ways. Now, he was truly alone, abandoned, defenseless. Thick tears ran down his face. Tears of shame, of loss, of impotence. He wanted to tell her he loved her. Just once more. Just once. Please.
Now, we are emotionally involved. Is he a bad son? Why is he wild? Why didn’t he tell her he loved her before? Did he tell her, but not enough?
I intentionally left a couple of elements there to drive the character one of two ways. The character can be selfish and egocentric, although he loves his mother, he may be sad to see her go because of how it affects him, not because she is now dead. On the other hand, the character may be feeling remorse for his past ways and be sorry he can not show her that he is willing and able to change, make her proud of him.
Here we are feeling for the characters: we may feel sorry for the old lady, may feel antipathy for the son, may feel sorry for the son.
Hopefully, we should be feeling with the characters, too: sadness at the lady’s passing, frustration, and impotence to do something about the disease.
Some authors are absolutely brilliant at this. George R.R. Martin brought us Jeofry Barathien, a character everyone LOVED to hate. There was a lot of emotion associated with the character. Loathing, shock, strong dislike. We knew the character was a sadist, and like all sadists, a coward. We, as the audience, shared some of his fear and were shocked at his cruelty. Strong emotions, elicited brilliantly by the author.
Another great example of how emotional engagement is very valuable comes from Star Trek, in the original series. The character in question is Spok. He is a character that initially is in the process of trying to control the emotions from his half-human side, side which being the emotional one, of course, came from his mother. Oh, the 1960s, those were very peculiar days. He is disdainful of them, preferring logic over emotion. They are not mutually excluding in real life, of course, but that was the premise.
We got a lot of emotional engagement from the character. Obviously, when Spok, for some reason, internal or external, experienced and showed emotions. In “Amok Time”, the Pon Farr is an example of when his emotions, strong, wild, and violent came from within. In “This side of Paradise” is an example of when emotions were imposed on Spok. In both cases, we are emotionally engaged with Spok. In one, because now we know the heavy price his suppression of all emotions takes on him periodically (every seven years, to be exact. Of course, the writers had all kinds of fun and took all kinds of leeways with Tubok later on, but that’s a subject for another time). In the other, because he reacts with “logic” when he has to finally leave the colony, again showing little if any emotion, but there are a lot of implied emotions. We, as the audience, will feel for him and with him, which is the objective of emotional engagement.
Emotional engagement will make the reader care.
As authors, it is our goal to get the reader to feel the characters are real. Have them feel they are friends with some, enemies of others.
We want to have them become “friends” with some characters. Care for them. Look forward to finding them in the next scene. The next chapter. Have the reader look forward to the next time the character witty banter comes into play. When the character shows off ingenuity, intelligence, grace, mastery of martial art, or any other attribute that endears them to the reader. And then we kill the character.
Maybe we kill them. Maybe not. But it does have a high shock value, doesn’t it? *cough* Ned Stark in GOT *cough*
We want them to have antipathy and a strong dislike for our antagonist. Be repulsed every time their egocentric, sadistic streak shows. Every time they hurt another person, abuse an innocent. Be frustrated every time the antagonist gets the better of the protagonist, every time they win a fight or conflict, again. We, as authors, need the antagonists, either directly or indirectly, to make the life of those around them miserable. Have them be the oppressive ruler of a peace-loving society, the brutal drill sergeant of a squad of raw recruits, the conniving Casanova who takes from his marks everything, their money, their dignity, and even their lives. And then we want them to win the day and get away, free and clear, laughing all the way. *cough* Senator Palpatine, Star Wars *cough*
We can go all the way to the last five hundred words and make it look like the antagonist the reader has come to despise is going to get away with it.
We, as authors, want the reader to look at how many pages are left and be ambivalent. Have them think: “I don’t want the book to end, but I really don’t want this prick to win. There are just a few pages, left. Come on! DO SOMETHING!”
We want them worried, panting, frustrated, intrigued, angry, sweating, in two words: emotionally engaged.
What do you think? Do you achieve emotional engagement with your readers? Are there any special tips or tricks you use? Help the rest of us out, and drop a line.
Thank you very much for reading and have a great day.