Today I'm going to talk about focal characters. I'm doing this because I want to examine how a focal character can be used to evoke reader identification and, therefore, emotion. The concept of the focal character is fundamental for a number of others--scenes and sequels for example--so I'm giving it a post of it's own.
My purpose here is to explore tricks and tips--methods--we as writers can self-consciously use to craft characters, strong vivid interesting characters, that will 'hook into' our readers emotions.
This post continues my exploration of Dwight V. Swain's marvellous book The Techniques of the Selling Writer.
What do we want our stories to do?
We wish to manipulate the emotions of readers through our stories.
Sounds cold-blooded, doesn't it? But think of it this way. You go to a horror movie. What would happen if you weren't scared? You wouldn't give the movie a good review--or at least I wouldn't.
What if you saw a romance movie and never felt the pang of love lost? Or an adventure movie and never once found yourself on the edge of your seat, breathless, wondering how the hero would get out of the fix he'd found himself in?
Given this--given that stories are all about the evocation and manipulation of emotion--the question for writers is: how does one evoke and manipulate emotion?
Answer: through characters. Specifically, one manipulates the emotions of our readers through manipulating the circumstances of our focal character.
So, really, what we need to know is how to create a focal character that has the capacity to evoke emotion in others.
As DS writes, "Feeling is a thing you build through manipulation of motivation and reaction."
(Note: For more information on motivation-reaction pairs see the post: How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion.)
1. Recognize that events by themselves lack meaning or emotion.
DS uses the example of a rainstorm. Let's say you're a farmer and your crops are languishing during a drought. In that case a rainstorm would be welcome. Ecstatically welcome.
On the other hand, imagine you're in light summer clothing and you've just paid a couple of hundred dollars to have your hair done. Also, you aren't wearing a coat or carrying an umbrella. Then it starts to rain. In this case the rainstorm would be most unwelcome.
The point is that events only begin to matter when they matter to someone. (And not just any someone. Your focal character. But we'll get to that in a minute.)
Instances/events have to be specific.
Take the example of the rainstorm. How much rain was there? Was it a drizzle or did the rain come down in a torrential downpour? What was the wind like? Strong? Weak? When did the rainstorm occur? Where? And so on.
Be specific. Added together all these details create the specific instance and bring the rainstorm to life, make it real.
You need a yardstick.
"A thing matters only insofar as it relates to and affects and is judged by people. [...] We decide how significant a thing is by the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance./In other words, a thing isn't just significant. It's significant to somebody."
Whether an event is perceived as good or bad depends on how your focal character reacts to it.
The yardstick needs to be a character.
"The bombing raid is rated by whether we or our enemies are on the receiving end. [...] Chocolate bars are good, if I'm hungry; bad, if I'm trying to reduce; and so on."
Someone needs to feel, to think, to judge. This can only be a character.
Judgements are made with FEELING rather than LOGIC or REASON.
"Pure water is clear," is a fact. So is "the number two is even". Here's another one: The cat is on the mat.
Generally speaking, a fact matters to a person to the degree it affects them. If the fact affects them positively they'll feel positively about it ("Our company is giving out bonuses this year!") and vice versa.
As Dwight Swain writes:
"Seven inches of rain in a night is a fact, so long as you merely see an item about it in the paper. Let it wash through your living room and ruin two thousand dollars' worth of furnishings, and it takes on true meaning and significance for you."
2. Your Focal Character is your reader's emotional compass.
I included the material, above, because it emphasizes the importance of feeling and judgement--of a yardstick--but all that has simply been to lead up to this discussion of the focal character.
A story isn't about something out there in the external world, it's about the reactions of the characters you've created. It's about what happens to them and how they react to it.
Your story world is going to be filled with facts. These facts will only matter to your reader to the extent they effect someone, a character. The focal character.
A story concerns the focal character's reactions to what happens, to the facts and events of the story. A story is about "his feelings; his emotions; his impulses; his dreams; his ambitions; his clashing drives and inner conflicts."
How do you make the focal character care about what's going on within the story world you create? (And, by extension, make the reader care?)
You give the focal character a goal, and you spell out what forces oppose him/her reaching that goal. You also spell out the stakes; that is, what will happen if the focal character achieves his goal, as well as what will happen if he fails to achieve it. Further, when you're spelling out the stakes, focus on what the focal character would win or lose emotionally.
Facts are just facts, we're interested in emotions. Feelings.
The three main functions of the focal character:
i. "To provide continuity."
However much time passes, or places visited, the focal character gives your story continuity. It unites its disparate elements into a unified whole.
ii. "To give meaning."
It is your focal character's reactions that will determine whether a reader sees a certain event, a certain happening, as important or inconsequential.
"Meaning ... is always a conclusion you and I draw about something from the way a particular somebody behaves when faced with a specific instance."
For example, The reader's "attitude toward the rainstorm we cited earlier will be determined by whether the rain helps or handicaps the focal character".
In Indiana Jones and Raider's of the Lost Ark we have a trailer scene where the focal character, Indiana Jones, struggles to win a dangerous prize. We see him save a man's life only to be betrayed. We see his prize, a golden statue, taken from him and his life unjustly endangered. And we see his vulnerability--his fear of snakes.
This is the context in which we view Dr. Bellog taking the golden idol from Indy. Everything Indy did before this point gave that event its meaning and shaped/determined our reactions to it.
iii. "To create feeling."
The focal character creates feelings in your reader. DS writes, "The biggest single reason that a focal character exists is to evoke them [emotions]."
Here's how it works:
Your reader needs a focal character, someone to either approve or disapprove of. Without an emotional compass your reader will have no feeling either way--either that or they'll be confused.
Take away: Your reader exists within the story by identifying with your focal character. It is this identification that sucks him into the story world.
3. Focal Character versus Viewpoint Character
The focal character is not the viewpoint character. Further, the focal character need not be the hero/protagonist.
"A viewpoint character is someone through whose eyes we see all or part of a story. In effect, we get inside his skin."
"... the person around whom the yarn revolves ..."
The focal character "will be the central and most important character, because he's the one who determines your reader's [emotional] orientation."
For example, "Sherlock Holmes is a focal character; the viewpoint is Watson's. In Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is the focal character .... the viewpoint, author-objective."
I'd say that in Bram Stoker's Dracula the viewpoint is first-person and floats between characters, depending on which journal or piece of correspondence is being read, but the focal character--the person whose story it is--is Dracula.
Okay! So much for focal characters. The next post in this series will be on how to craft a scene your reader won't be able to put down. Stay tuned!