A rejection that I received for a short story caused me to take a look at the beginnings of all my stories, short or book length.
Your reader needs to make a connection with your main character. Your heroine or hero needs to have at least one strong quality with which a reader can empathize. When your readers make such a connection, they experience the story through that character’s senses.
Reader empathy must happen at the top of the story. When your reader cannot find anything about your story or characters to like, interest quickly wanes. Then they may not read deep into the story; if they get so far as to finish, the lack of connection will leave them asking “So what?”
I received a rejection from a magazine editor for my fantasy story about a woman’s experience with a UFO and aliens. While I thought it was one of my best fantasy stories, he said,
“I don’t know what to make of the protagonist’s experience. On one level, I don’t need to know whether they’re real or imaginary, but I didn’t learn enough about her to feel much empathy. Although I can’t use this story, please feel free to submit another.”
This editor didn’t say that I should tell more about my protagonist at the top of the story. Placing additional information at the top is my idea for the re-write. After all, how far into the story will a person read when they cannot find rapport with the main character? This editor, most likely, read or scanned the story all the way through because that’s an editor’s job. A reader is not obligated to do the same.
Another possibility of building rapport exists with the reader learning about the main character as the story unfolds. But again, how far into the story will the reader pay attention in order to build empathy? In the case of my story, I see that I can add two sentences at the very beginning of the story that should solve the problem.
Building reader empathy can happen by revealing anything about the main character that will draw the reader to them. The characteristic may be something that elicits any type of emotion, be it love, pity, admiration, or anything else that helps the reader feel connected to that character.
When your main character is the villain, you must still build a trait into her or his makeup to keep the reader’s eyes glued to the page. In a case like this, it might be someone we love to hate and will keep reading just to see that the villain gets a comeuppance. Yet, how many people write stories from the villain’s point of view?
Usually, stories are written from other than the villain’s POV. Not too many readers want to identify with a villain.
Test this advice next time you read a story or, specifically, when you are looking for a new novel to read. Usually readers test the story by reading the beginning paragraphs or pages. How soon do you make a connection to the main character, or even a secondary character? What was the connection made? Was it strong enough to keep you reading, even purchasing the book?
Clues, such as I received in the rejection, help so very much. If I must receive one, it’s the type of rejection I welcome. I’ve already fixed my story and sent it elsewhere. You can bet I will be sending other stories to this very generous editor. And I’ve already rewritten the beginnings of two of my future novels.
Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre.