Writers try hard to evoke sympathy for their protagonist(s) from readers, but it’s not easy to make them feel that way for their antagonist as well. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.
Empathy definitely helps writers and editors, allowing us to understand not only the hopes and dreams of a character, but their deepest fears and motivations. What are their values and beliefs? Why do they make the life choices they do? Having them act ‘out of character’ or without clear, understandable motivation, is a surefire way to drop a reader out of your story, sometimes permanently.
Issues are rarely black and white. It’s been said that there are always at least two or three versions of any incident: your version, my version, and the truth. Yes, maybe that’s not always the case but it illustrates the fact that we don’t always look at issues from all sides.
One of my alltime favourite books about an important issue is Richard North Patterson’s “Balance of Power” which explores the US gun control issue from just about every side of the issue: the shooters, the family of the victim, the sellers, the buyers, the politicians…
Understanding our fellow humans and their viewpoints is important, whether we agree with them or not. There, in the gray area, is where we often find our best story.
We have all woken in the middle of a dream for some reason and snuggle back, trying to return to your dream. It’s very rare that you are able to return to the dream, well, at least for me.
This is exactly what your editor means when they warn that you can ‘drop your reader out of the story’. In the worst case scenario, your reader may be an acquiring editor who never reads any further. Or it may be a reader who purchased your book who may give it up and never buy another of yours.
What can drop a reader out of your story? Your words may be repetitive, awkward or klunky, there may be an error of grammar, a plot hole or any of a multitude of other things, some of which may be entirely subjective in the mind of the reader.
What can you do about it? Consider your editor’s comments, polish it to the best of your ability and let it go. Write the best story you can and trust that your reader descends into that fictional daydream.
Don’t be afraid to overwrite your drafts. Revision and editing will sculpt the story into a publishable form. The better you understand your characters and their story, the better your book will be. Know that backstory but feed it sparingly through the story. Understand what happened to make your characters the people they are when your story starts. Know why their mother and father fought and why their grandparents died.
Just as the iceberg you see is merely the tip of a very large underwater berg, the published book is often just like it. The reader has only the book before her, yet it will be obvious that you know it all. Those 800 invisible pages are there.
How do you find solitude in the middle of a crowd? On a train, on a bus, at an event that has lost your interest? Take out your favourite book!
I recently listened to “Romeo and Juliet: A Novel” by David Hewson, narrated or performed by Richard Armitage. In an interview about the book, they spoke about the German expression Kopfkino, literally “cinema in the head.” What a fitting way of expressing what happens when one reads, or listens to a reading or performance of a book.
Nobody but you knows what goes on in your head. Even if you wanted to, even though you can try to express it, it’s rare that you could actually do so. There, in your head, you are alone with your thoughts and the images you see.
Almost as good as writing, seeing a new story for the first time, immersing oneself into a new world, literally making it up as you go. Populating your new world with your own characters.