There’s a whole lot about writing I don’t know. But I’ve been an avid reader for a long, long time, and I’ve learned one thing. The best stories—the ones that keep me up nights turning pages instead of going to bed—are the ones in which I can envision myself as the protagonist, and live the story instead of merely reading about it. And not just live the story like the protagonist does, but live it alongside the protagonist, putting myself in his/her shoes, thinking “would I do the same thing, act the same way, have the same reaction as s/he does?”
How does a writer put the reader in that position? First, by getting inside the character’s heads, experiencing how s/he feels, what s/he thinks in a situation. You can’t do that from some external, authorial, viewpoint. You have to get inside the character. Put the reader in the character’s head, immerse them in his/her thoughts and feelings.
The second thing: Emotions. We all have them. So do your characters. And your readers. And when the reader sees on the page the feeling a character has, the reader has the same feeling, right?
The reader is continually evaluating your character’s emotions, reactions, thoughts and comparing them to how s/he would actually feel, react and think in the same circumstances. How many times have you read, “His guts twisted in fear”? Do your guts twist in fear when you read it? Of course not. You’ve read those words far too many times to have that kind of impact.
Then how do we get the reader to feel the fear? By excavating past the superficial, easy emotions, the low-hanging fruit, and mining deep into the different levels of feeling. You’ll see plenty of writers settle for the immediate reaction, the first emotion anyone would feel. That’s only natural. If anyone would feel it, certainly your character would. So would your reader. But since it is the first, the surface emotion, it will quickly be forgotten.
Dig past that first emotion into the second level, the hidden emotion. Isn’t there always a deeper feeling? Suppose you are angry at your spouse because they forgot to wash the dishes or take out the trash. Is it that simple? Look deeper. Maybe your anger is not about the trash, it’s that they don’t listen or pay attention to you like they once did. If your characters have a surface feeling, unless they are paper-thin, two-dimensional, there should always be a hidden feeling underneath. This feeling sticks. It’s a big part of what gives a character depth, and what makes your reader connect with that character on a deeper, more personal level.
Can we mine emotions even deeper, down to a third level? Absolutely! This is where you will hit the mother lode, that level of emotion that will pull your reader in, that will lodge in their mind and stay there: the surprise emotion. Have you ever gone into a situation believing you would react a certain way, but when it actually occurred you felt totally different? It can happen to characters, too. When it does your character will spring off the page as a real person, the kind a reader believes in. The best way to surprise the reader is for the character to surprise him/herself. Surprise will transfix your reader, make their heart beat faster and draw them into the heart—the emotional heart—of your story. Then they will stay up until the wee hours reading your story, and think about it long after they’ve finished.