The best point of reference you can give your reader regarding your characters is how the characters feel about each other.
Imagine you are being told about a person you’ve never met. Your friend might say, “He’s a really nice guy. You’ll like him.” But her merely saying that doesn’t make you feel anything for this stranger.
Your friend tries a different approach. “For example,” she says, “he did the sweetest thing the other day.” She launches into a few stories that illustrate the qualities she’s trying to convey – to convince you to like this person before you meet him. She’s showing you his character so that you can decide for yourself, but she’s also conveying her feelings for him. You find yourself liking this person because she does, and you’re touched by “the sweet thing he did” because she was.
Imagine she tells you about her awful boss. Again, you can easily sympathise as she illustrates her point.
It’s the same for your readers. They might understand on an intellectual level that your protagonist is handsome and brave because you told them, but they don’t feel it personally.
Funerals and wakes are typically where the deceased’s acquaintances might say something like, “I didn’t realise he was such a nice guy/so loved by the community.” The acquaintances didn’t get to know his character in day-to-day dealings, but they were influenced by how others described how he made them feel.
One of the most striking fictional examples for me is in the movie The Champ. A character dies, but it is not the death that affects the audience – it’s only several minutes later that the reaction of the character’s child to the parent’s death turns this movie into a tearjerker. If the movie ended with the death it would only be an average film.
In order to influence your reader’s reaction to your characters you must ensure that your characters react to each other first.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in February 2008. © Elsa Neal
For more help with characterisation, try Dynamic Characters : How to Create Personalities That Keep Readers Captivated by Nancy Kress