This week’s guest post is from blogger and experienced creative writer Melissa Donovan, writer of Writing Forward. Check out her site, and enjoy her post!
How to Make Readers Feel Like Characters in Your Story
By Melissa Donovan
Have you ever read a book and felt like you were watching events unfold inside a snow globe? The scenes are compelling, the story is captivating, and the characters are relatable, but you feel like you’re on the outside looking in.
There’s nothing wrong with these stories, but some readers like to get more involved. They want to participate in the story. They want to feel like one of the characters and experience the adventure for themselves.
As writers, it’s our job to decide just how involved in the story we want readers to be. In some cases, we want the audience to sit back and bear witness. But in other cases, we want the reader to play a part in the action.
Below, you’ll find three writing techniques for creating a story in which readers can become actively involved. These techniques help you turn good writing into better writing by fueling your readers’ imaginations and allowing them to play alongside your characters.
Keep Readers in the Dark
Generally, it’s not a good idea to keep readers completely in the dark. If the story is vague, readers will set it aside and forget to come back (because vague stories fail to leave an impression).
After the jump: more narrative techniques.
Many narratives go to the opposite extreme, giving readers more information than the characters have. This is especially true with works written in omniscient third person point of view, in which the narrative follows all of the characters and action rather than filtering the story through a particular character’s perspective. The tension builds precisely because the reader anticipates what will happen when one character finds out what another character is doing.
This makes for effective storytelling, although the audience invariably knows more about what’s happening and where the story is going than the characters do. For this reason, such stories position the audience as observers, not participants.
Thankfully, there’s a sweet spot between keeping readers completely in the dark and giving them godlike visibility over the goings-on in your story. The trick is to limit what the readers know so they possess just as much knowledge as the characters — no more and no less.
You will have to choose which characters your reader will align with, which can be limiting. You, as the writer, may know what the love interest or the villain is doing, but that can’t be revealed to the readers if they are to experience the story along with the protagonist.
Build a Mystery
One of the reasons the mystery genre is so popular is because readers like to think, solve problems, and participate in the story. Think about the prevalence of crime shows, suspense films, and police procedural novels. The audience is almost always guaranteed a chance to play along in the game of trying to figure out who did it.
You don’t have to write a crime story to engage your readers in a mystery. One of the reasons The Notebook (as a film and as a novel) transcended the romance genre was because the reader couldn’t be sure whether the hero would get the girl. Most romance stories guarantee a happy ending, but The Notebook kept readers guessing, and in doing so, brought them directly into the tale.
Mysteries don’t have to involve crime or mayhem. A mystery can be something as simple as a missing possession (a family heirloom, a work of art, a memento, or a letter) or as elaborate as a sweeping series of coincidences that link multiple characters together. A mystery is any question that does not have an obvious answer and that is emphasized throughout the story. Then, all you have to do is plant clues (for your characters and your readers) and gently guide them to the big reveal where the mystery is finally solved.
Setting as Character
Every so often, a story comes along that’s not just about people; it’s also about a place. These stories usually address the ways in which place shapes characters’ lives. For example, a character living in New York City is not going to have the same experiences as a character living on a tropical island.
As writers, we’re told to explore the human condition, so most stories focus closely on the characters and their experiences. It’s rare for a story to shine a spotlight on location. And even when the setting is significant, it’s often not described or presented in a way that makes it feel like a living, breathing entity.
Yet setting can play a role in a story the same way a character would. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness gives us the Congo as a character. Similarly, Frank Baum’s land of Oz had a personality all its own.
In stories like these, the location in which the story is set is presented in such detail that it becomes anthropomorphic. That’s not to say descriptions are lengthy or tedious, but they are detailed and specific. There aren’t rows of buildings lining neighborhood streets. There are houses with doors for noses and windows for eyes, houses that watch over the city streets and guard the secrets of those who dwell there.
If you can render a setting that works like a character, then your reader will step into that setting and slide right into your story.
Enter the Story
Active reader participation is not appropriate for every story. Whether or not you choose to use these (or other) techniques for bringing readers into a story will depend on the story itself as well as the characters, setting, plot, themes, and your own narrative style. However, experimenting with these techniques in a short story, brief article, or piece of flash fiction would be a good exercise for any writer who wants readers to become truly absorbed.
About the Author: Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She is also the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing.