Beats of the Heart

Many authors are good at writing about what characters do. Yet they are less skilled at creating relationships between characters that have any depth to them. When I ask for further work on this issue, I stress that an author must put emotions out on the page that will stir the reader. While some emotion, such as catharsis, can be gained through acts, such as a murder, the deepest ones are built the same way you build every other meaningful element in a story: step by step, over the course of the entire book.

That requires that you create connections between characters. In particular, you can use relationships to better define the protagonist. If you think about what makes a hero stand out, usually two key aspects come to mind. They have some odd quirks, like operating their business out of the back of their car. Yet even more important, they have someone to bounce off consistently, who shows how quirky they are.

An example will illustrate how a relationship can be developed separate from the main plot. A rebellious adult son, Andy, has a father, Ivan, who is always cutting corners in his business. That means the book starts at step 1: the two don’t get along. That’s where you want to be with an early relationship. Let’s say Ivan gets in trouble with the law because of his activities, and his wife begs Andy to help out. You now need a means by which father and son will engage in a series of scenes, during which Andy comes to forgive his father. The forgiveness can’t happen all at once. After all, Andy has been contemptuous of his father for years before the novel started.

In this case, what are the possible ties that bind? Family, of course. They’re father and son. What does Ivan know about the family that he could tell his son? Maybe Ivan is a first-generation immigrant from Russia, and his family suffered terrible losses under the Soviets. Ivan learned to cheat at an early age because that was the only way to survive. If he told Andy a series of stories about his past, leading up to the one that drove the family out of Russia, Andy is going to be hard hit by that news. By this time you might have created 6-7 scenes between them, and this is the payoff. You’re building the relationship the same way you’d build a plot line, but now you have the reader rooting for the father and son to unite. That’s emotional depth.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with the sole purpose of finding a character that will support the protagonist. The main criterion is: how can you build a relationship over the course of a half dozen scenes? You can use a present crisis as well as material from the past to drive the relationship. Can you devise an outcome so that the process completes a significant character arc?

“The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.”  —Confucius 

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

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