Beginning novelists have a lot to learn about craft: showing not telling, the three-act structure, developing characters, crafting effective dialogue, using sensory detail to immerse the reader in the scene. Yet even if all these elements are in place, the novel can still fall flat.
When I rate a novel on the Goodreads, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble websites, the difference between a 4-star and a 5-star review is often emotional resonance. In short, how happy or uplifted or moved do I feel at the end of the novel?
In fiction, knowing your reader goes deeper than simply understanding the expectations of your genre. What do readers want from the experience of reading fiction? In a post on Writer Unboxed, Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, explains it this way:
Story is an internal brain-to-brain, emotion-driven expedition…about how the plot affects the protagonist. The good news is that protagonists are people. Just like you and me. They live and breathe and make decisions the same way we do. The bad news is that writers often tend to leave this crucial layer out, giving us only a beautifully written rendition of the story’s external shell – the plot, the surface, the “things that happen” — rather than what’s beneath the surface, where the real meaning lies.
The story is in how we decide to do things, not simply in the things we do.
As an author, your goal is to create a fictive dream and immerse readers into it. At the same, you must lead readers (baby ducks, as Heidi Cullinan calls them) down the path you want them to go, focusing their attention on things that matter, downplaying things that are less important, and imprinting them on the characters they’re supposed to sympathize with.
For instance, you don’t want your minor characters to be cardboard cutouts, but you don’t want them to be fully realized, either. At a meeting with the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, Sue Winegardner of Entangled Publishing talked about seeing submissions for YA novels where the main characters are well-developed but the minor characters are stereotypes like “mean girl” and “nerd.” Even walk-on characters should have some trait that makes them real. When a barrista hands your protagonist a cup of coffee, the protagonist could notice the barrista’s chipped nail polish and silver bangle bracelets. This gives life to the story. But you don’t want the protagonist to overhear the barrista talking to a co-worker about how her mother is having a double mastectomy the next day, when you have no plans to go anywhere with that story element. A glimpse into the emotional life of a walk-on character leads readers to imprint on the character, and creates the expectation that the character is somehow important to the story.
Similarly, the antagonist should not be a villain with no redeeming characteristics, yet you don’t want to create too much sympathy him. During the final battle, readers should be rooting for the main character (even if they hope the antagonist can be redeemed). Otherwise, the ending will be unsatisfying, and they’ll be less likely to buy your next novel.
Balancing reader empathy among your cast of characters is essential if you want your stories to linger after the reader has finished the book. Yet it’s difficult for authors to judge this quality on their own. Ask your critique partners and beta readers for feedback in this area. Tweak as needed until your most trusted readers agree you’ve given them the satisfying story they crave.