I recently read a book where a man lost his wife and was now falling for another woman. Letting go of the past was hard for him. Or so he said. But honestly, the more I read, the more I just couldn’t get behind the love story between him and the heroine. I kept trying to understand why I didn’t care, and I finally figured it out. I didn’t feel his pain. I didn’t feel anyone’s emotions, quite frankly. His growing love for the heroine, her longing for the hero, their frustration and anger during the story’s blackest moment…. the words were printed there on the page, but I personally didn’t feel it.
What happens if readers don’t ‘feel’ along with your characters? They don’t believe in the story. It really is that important.
I couldn’t feel the emotions of these characters; therefore, I didn’t believe in their story. If you want your characters to leap off the page, you have to understand their emotions. To understand, you must dig into your own heart and pull out similar feelings you’ve had in your life. You may not have lost a spouse, but what significant losses have you faced? Chances are, in one form or another, you understand anger, hurt, regret, guilt, and grief. You likely have experienced the cycle that takes you through those emotions, and how you never fully “heal” or become like you were before, though the hurt may diminish over time. Take those emotions and show them in your characters. Give them memories that can appear at the most poignant times. Use their behaviors and choice dialogue to show their reactions to the emotion (rather than naming the emotion outright).
And of course, practice practice practice.
If you write characters, you must help readers feel. The best way to help them feel is to pour the emotions from your own experiences into those of your characters, even if you’ve never been through the same events.