On Fiction: Feeling Too Much?

Maybe I’m a sympathetic crier. Maybe, as I’ve grown older, I understand more and empathize with more situations. Either way, it doesn’t matter — if there’s a tearjerking moment in a film, television show, or book, I better have the tissues handy.

It sounds silly. We’re talking about fictional characters here; it’s not like they’re real people experiencing real moments. Is it feeling too much to shed tears of joy and sorrow along with people who don’t exist?

I say no.

A connection between audience and story is crucial for the audience to bother with the story at all. Characters make this happen. We need to relate to, root for, and care about someone, and we aren’t limited to the cast of good guys. We have villains we love to hate or those we want to succeed, even when it means they get away with something otherwise considered bad.

Characters engross us in stories more than compelling plots in picturesque settings. The story itself may be fascinating, but without dynamic characters to traverse it, who cares? If we can’t connect to any of the characters, we don’t care what happens to them and we may not care to find out.

Writing Fiction, from Gotham Writers’ Workshop, says this about well-written characters:

Good writers create a sense that their characters are people—physical, emotional, living, breathing, thinking people. The more you manage to make your characters feel real, to create the illusion of an actual person on the page, the more likely your reader is to fall into the story, past the language and the words, letting the real world recede and be replaced by the fictional world you have created. As a writer, you want your reader to feel that your characters are substantial, authentic, dimensional. Real enough to cast shadows.

Characters who feel like real people are why readers and viewers care about them and their stories. This is why my great-aunt lamented over Downton Abbey’s “poor Mary” before the start of season four. This is why, less than 12 minutes into Disney Pixar’s Up, my cousin turned to me in surprise that we were crying at a kids’ movie. This is why (and I’ve learned I wasn’t alone) I read part 10 of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief through teary eyes. Behind each of these stories the writer(s) created characters capable of casting shadows.

When characters feel this real, it’s not only acceptable that their sentimental moments trigger tears, it’s a compliment to the writers. With each dab at my eyes, I’ll love them and hate them for making me care.

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