Recently I had a subscription to a magazine that publishes fantasy and science-fiction short stories. The subscription lapsed because, being in grad school, I get a little behind in reading the stories when I spend most of my free hours in the evening studying for class. Now that I’m out of class, I’ve been catching up, at least a bit. I’m currently working my way through the January 2009 issue.
One thing I’m learning from the stories in the magazine is how important it is that we be able to relate to the experiences and feelings of the characters in those stories. In one story I read from today, the main character is going through a divorce, he was raised in a single-parent home because his father died, and works in a dead-end job in a delicatessen. At first glance, these aren’t experiences I can directly relate to. I was raised by a mother and father together, and I have no direct experience with divorce. My career has moved well beyond the time I spent working in a dining establishment. But the feelings and emotions brought up by the experiences this character is going through are feelings I’ve shared. I understand what it’s like to have difficulty in a relationship. Though my father was usually at home with the family, he served in the Armed Forces, and spent several long tours on TDY in other countries – and though he always came home at the end of his tour of duty, I can remember how hard it was for us, as a family, during the times he was gone. And although my career never stalled working behind the counter in a diner or deli, I know the feeling of fearing that my career has reached a dead-end and that there are no opportunities to make something better of life.
These sorts of feelings and emotions are pretty common, though the experiences that go with them are as varied as the permutations of our genes and the products of our times. As varied as those experiences are, they consistently produce the same range of human emotions, and it is the experience of those emotions that gives a reader a real connection to a story. This is one reason why clichés and archetypes become so common in fiction: they’ve become a short-hand for the emotions and experiences they are supposed to represent. But insofar as these clichés and archetypes are still able to elicit those emotional connections, they have not yet lost their potency. (When that happens, the cliché becomes trite, tired, and overused, but that threshold is different, depending on the observer and critic.)
Writing a story that successfully makes these emotional connections is challenging, that’s for sure. The history and experiences of the characters involved need to be recognizable enough and universal enough that we can quickly connect with the emotional experience of the character. Yet, at the same time, they need to be unique and nuanced so that the characters do not become flat, cardboard cut-outs: lifeless, and meaningless. It’s a fine line to walk, but a necessary one, if the story is going to succeed.
I wish you good luck in finding that emotional connection in the history and experience of your characters, and making their stories resonate with your readers. Happy writing.