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Finding the Emotional Core

‘Gone’ by Flickr user Petras Gagilas

A few months ago I wrote about how Authors are Magic [2]. During that post, I talked about reading Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series to my children. We were reading the ninth book in the series at the time, and I described my love for the books like so:

The story is engaging, the characters are fun and inventive, and as the series goes on, it’s clear that the stories – for all that they’re about fantasy Vikings having adventures with their dragons – are really about the process of growing up and find your place in the world. Or, to quote the oft-repeated tagline in the books: They’re about becoming a hero the hard way.

We’ve now finished reading all twelve books in the series, and they’ve prompted me to write about yet another aspect of writing that is near and dear to my heart.

(On a sidenote, I can’t recommend this series enough. The world-building, the characterisation, and the skillful way Cowell continues to “make it worse” are things all writers could learn from.)

Halfway through the eleventh book in the series — right at the Black Moment of the narrative — everything goes wrong. And I mean everything. A secondary character who had been with us from the first page of the first book dies in the most heroic and bittersweet way possible. And, in the end, it doesn’t even (seem to) help.Our hero loses everything he’s gained over the course of ten and a half books, and we’re left wondering: How can he possibly succeed from here?

That in itself isn’t rare or unusual. No, what made it really striking for me was that I was reading this book out loud to my sons. Just like I had all the others. But the emotional core was so very strong that I was struggling to read through my tears.

And it wasn’t just me.

Both my eleven-year-old and seven-year-old cried. My younger son crawled over to curl up in my lap so he could hold on to me and sob his heart out.

Did they want me to stop?

Hell. No.

The very idea that I might stop reading to let us all take a few breaths and recover was met with a chorus of heartbroken pleas not to do such a thing. They were absolutely, completely engaged with the characters and the story. They both, in that moment, knew that their tears were as much a part of the book as the words I was reading.

And that — that, my friends — is what it means to build an authentic emotional core within a story.

The first time I really remember curling up and crying so hard that the pages of the book were wet with tears was when I read Swan Song by Robert McCammon when I was twelve. There may have been books before that one that brought tears to my eyes, but that’s the one that sticks in my mind.

For my sons, How to Betray a Dragon’s Hero is that book.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. How do we create such a strong emotional core in our novels that we leave our own readers in tears? Or in peals of laughter, if that’s more your thing?

I think that, as with most other elements of writing, it comes down to a few main points:

Create authentic characters that the reader connects with and cares about.

This isn’t the same as creating a “likeable” character. But if the reader can’t connect with your character, then the highs and lows of that character aren’t going to matter in any kind of emotional way. Make sure your character feels human, has strengths and weaknesses, and a goodly number of foibles. Write about a person, not a caricature.

Build the relationship between character and reader.

Let the reader go on a journey with the character, and see how the character is growing and changing in the process. I’ve seen too many stories where we’re supposed to care about the character simply because they’re the character. No matter how relatable that character is, we need to build that relationship. Let us see what your character is like when they’re happy, sad, angry, successful, and unsuccessful. Again, make them human.

Make sure the reader knows the stakes.

If the stakes aren’t clear, why does the reader care if the character fails or succeeds? We need to know exactly what the stakes are if they lose. We need to know how much it means to the character for them to succeed, and what they — or the world — will be like if they don’t. We need to know about their insecurities and fears, their hopes and dreams, and what they need to do to achieve the latter despite the former.

Let the character — and the reader — experience their emotions.

It’s really easy to rush over the moments of failure; to let a set-back happen, and then push the story on to the next plot point. But, in life, we need time to process and live in our emotions. We need time to cry and berate ourselves and feel miserable. Let your character do the same. Not, obviously, to the point of wallowing in boredom or killing the momentum. But if you rush straight over the dark emotions inherent in losing — even temporarily — then you miss a chance for the reader to experience the emotional core of your work.

In short…

Create a character who feels deep emotions, and invite the reader to join them on their journey. It creates a bond that can never be broken between your character and your reader — one that will still exist decades into the future.

What was the first book that made you cry? How do you make sure you’re building an accessible emotional core into your stories?



About Jo Eberhardt [3]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.