Usually when I post on Magical Words, I talk about something general like queries or plotting or submissions. Today I want to talk about something very specific: tightly self-contained characters. This is something very close to my heart, because I have the tendency to write characters who hold themselves apart from the world, who are in control and don’t need or want your help, thank you very much. I have authors who write these sorts of characters as well, and as a consequence have to go through more than their fair share of revisions to draw in editorial interest because these sorts of characters have a difficult time forming emotional connections with the reader just as they do the other characters with whom they interact.
Mind you, there are ways around this.
One such way is to make your hero or heroine an unreliable narrator, so that when he or she thinks things like, “which didn’t bother me in the least,” we’re clear that exactly the opposite is true. How do you do this? One way is through body language, which is often reserved for those the viewpoint character is observing rather than for the narrator him or herself. He or she might have some sort of involuntary reaction –a gasp or flinch or some other tell that lets us know the truth. Alternately, you can have another character observe this tell and show us with a smile, a smirk or by straight-up calling the person out on his or her contradictions.
There are also unguarded moments. Maybe it’s late or the mood is right or the character has been drinking. Maybe there’s been extreme emotional distress or a near-death experience. But there’s bound to be a moment during which your hero or heroine is more vulnerable than usual, and his/her true feelings will slip out.
Furthermore, sometimes feelings are revealed not in what is said, but in the words used. For instance: “her blonde hair fell over her eyes” versus “her golden hair blew across her face, obscuring those dove-gray eyes…” In the first, the “her” could be the hero’s sister. In the second, that’s a lot less likely.
Or maybe your “hero” isn’t the narrator. Consider that with the Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s Dr. Watson, the more everyman character, the one who does form ties and take risks, who actually narrates the adventures. As much as I love the good detective, I can only imagine how pedantic the stories would be in his voice, should he care to explain himself at all, which, of course, he wouldn’t.
To sum up: your readers can’t form emotional attachments with a character who won’t meet them halfway. One way or another, you have to find a way to let the reader in on the secret of your hero or heroine’s vulnerability and underlying emotion.