THE EMOTIONAL BOND BETWEEN READER AND CHARACTER
A good novel of any genre will almost certainly have a compelling plot. Of greater importance for a romance novel, however, is the development of a relationship between two people, very often from indifference or even hostility through liking and friendship and attraction to falling in love and, ultimately, to the fullness of total and unconditional love itself. For a love story to be truly satisfying, the ending should leave the reader sighing with contentment (and perhaps also with a little sadness that it is over), convinced that these two people share the sort of unbreakable love bond that will last a lifetime and even forever. It should give the satisfaction of happily-ever-after yet the conviction too that these two people are going to have to work on their love every day for the rest of their lives if they are to remain happy.
In order to come to this conviction, the reader has to be drawn into the world of the story and into the minds and hearts and very souls of the two lovers. Readers need to be emotionally engaged in the journey to love of these two, to the degree that in their imagination they almost become these lovers. It is the writer’s job to make all this happen.
The characters have to seem very real. Whether the hero is tall, dark, handsome and charismatic or something quite different, whether the heroine is charming and beautiful or something else entirely, they must seem like real people with whom the reader can relate and empathize. They cannot simply be cardboard characters with little depth beyond some life history and personality traits the writer has created for them. They must give the illusion of being living, breathing humans with strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and defeats and problems, as full of flaws and contradictions as real people. But no matter what, the reader has to want to root for them in their struggles and must fall in love with them in their vulnerabilities. The reader must passionately want the love story to work and to end happily.
In order to make characters real, the writer has to know them soul deep. It is possible to know a great deal about other people without really knowing them to their very core. Sometimes we do not even fully know ourselves. Do you ever find yourself saying or doing something that takes even you by surprise? Do you really know exactly how you would behave in some unexpected circumstance, a life-or-death emergency for example? When I am writing a story, I find over and over again that I have to stop, go back, find out just who this character is, and rewrite certain episodes because I have learned more about her or him and need to adjust the story accordingly. Certain things I wanted them to do can no longer happen because they are no longer the people I thought they were. And never tell me that as the writer I am in control of who my characters are. Not true!
This deeper knowledge of my characters comes to me, however, only as they speak and think and react to one another in the unfolding story. I find it impossible to know everything in advance. Crafting a whole story never comes easily to me because I am not satisfied until I feel I have the hero and heroine absolutely right. They are rarely willing to give up any of their secrets early or all of them at once. Sometimes, if all else fails and the story (and the romance) is stalling, I end up asking them, often aloud, where their deepest pain lies hidden. There is always something. Once I know that, then I can set about bringing the character healing so that he/she can reach the point of being able to give love and to accept it and settle to a lasting, meaningful love relationship. And this must happen for both main characters. They must both be involved in the revelations and the healing. They must somehow help bring each other to completeness and love and ultimate happiness.
Merely knowing the characters as they are at the start is not enough, then. There has to be growth in the author’s understanding of them, and there has to be growth in the characters if the reader is going to invest time and emotion in their story. This is not necessarily true of all genres of fiction. In some, very little emotional involvement with the main characters is necessary. But it is essential in a love story. If the hero, for example, is gorgeous and sexy and does nothing but macho things throughout the story—well, the reader might enjoy reading about him but there will be little emotional empathy with him. There can be very little conviction that he will be capable of a lifelong love commitment.
One way to delve deep into heroes and heroines and pull the reader in emotionally is through a careful use of point of view. Point of view is the eyes and mind through which a particular episode of the story is being told. It is possible to narrate the whole story in the first person, told by one of the lovers, though in that case the events can be experienced only through the mind and emotions of that one character (just as happens in our own lives). Or the whole story can be told by the author as narrator. She can tell the reader what happens and what her characters are thinking and feeling. I prefer to use what I call third person deep interior point of view. I alternate between the hero and heroine, telling one episode from his point of view and another from hers. The reader gets to experience the story through the minds and hearts and viewpoints of both main characters, but not at the same time. If you think about it, everything that happens in our lives has an emotional component. We are the ones who experience everything that happens to us and in the world around us, and everything that happens is colored by our own character and values and experiences and emotions. Especially our emotions. Very little happens to us that does not carry some emotion with it. The aim of the writer should be to duplicate this reality with fictional characters. They must come across as living, emotional beings as they experience the events of the plot. If their story is told from deep within them, then the reader will be there too, experiencing everything with them and feeling what they feel—living and loving with them.
Creating this emotional connection of writer, character, and reader is one of the greatest challenges in the writing of a love story. It is also, I believe, the key to its success—or failure. The author must be able to make the reader laugh with the characters and cry with them and feel the whole gamut of human emotions with them—and fall in love with them, as individuals and as a couple. The best and most memorable of love stories ought to be for everyone—not just the two fictional characters experiencing them, but also every reader living them vicariously with the lovers. It is the writer’s job to make sure this happens.
I would love to read your thoughts and opinions. To one person who leaves a comment below by Friday, February 19, I will send a signed copy of the two-in-one volume, THE TEMPORARY WIFE/A PROMISE OF SPRING.
[The winner is BRANDY HARTLEY. Congratulations to her! Thank you to everyone else who left a comment. As soon as I have Brandy’s postal address, I will put her signed book in the mail.]
A book that grabs my attention is the force of emotions the character carries. I can feel empathy, love, anger, pity in a book, then it is a great book to me. 🙂 A good writer brings out the most of a character, even if you do not like that character, the writer brings out why?
A good book makes you care for the characters. You want to know what they are feeling and thinking. The characters have layers to their personality. I can hear them in their regional dialect speaking. I want to know what happens next in the story. I am sorry to see the story end.
Contentment is absolutely the right word. After reading your books, I feel content and a little sadness that the story is over. This is why I return to your books time and time again. No other author is able to provide that strong of a connection to the characters or the story. One of the many reasons I love all your books!
I am a person who loves justice and retribution, so as a reader I am always reeled in by a wrong that needs righting. Whether the character is the wrong/doer or the victim, I want see them through the development of coming to terms with the past and resolving it.
Your comment on writing perspective made me consider that I when I write I usually opt for the 3rd person narrator who can tell the story from multiple points of view. And, in a story of romance, it would not be nearly as satisfying to read from only one character’s perspective because I would not believe or trust or empathize with the character whose inner thoughts I was not able to access. Also, writing from the perspective of only one character can be very frustrating because, as the author, I know what is going on out of sight and hearing of the main character but a lot of it is never revealed.
I love alternating berween the hero and heroine. It’s one of my favorite things about your books and why I enjoy your style if writing more than others. Also, thank you for histing giveaways. A free book is like a free meal for my mind. No one says no to free food.
I always pick at least one person to be me in the book. Sometimes this carries on into live, much to the amazement of my family.
I always enjoy a Mary Balogh romance novel. The people fee real and the happily-ever-after is always uplifting..
Headed out today to pick up your latest. Don’t want to miss any of your solid and attractive male characters.
You never fail to form that bond. Not only with the main two lovers, but with those that are inner twined in their lives. That is why I love your books. Excitedly waiting for Someone to Cherish.
After reading romance novels for decades, I find that I mainly read just three authors-and you are one of those favorites. This essay distills the primary reason I can just fall into one of your books. I thank you for all the hours of enjoyment and escape your books have brought me. And who doesn’t need that in these times?
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
How incredible you are to explain things so simply! As I read, any book, I look for the very things you mention here. I could never put my finger on what I liked or didn’t like about a certain book and you just nailed it!
I’ve read books that have left me cold and uncertain as to why I bothered to continue reading. Now I know. Thanks again!!! You’re WONDERFUL!!!
The depth of the characters are what makes the novels so engaging
I love characters that I can see myself in and love being pulled into the story by the characters even if I can’t see myself in their shoes so to speak. I experience many emotions while reading and it is always sad to see the story end, but there is also joy in returning to a book as if reuniting with an old friend.
When I first started reading your romances, what I most enjoyed was the deep inside view of each character. Whenever I start a new romance I long for whom I will meet this time. Is like doing new friendships every time we open a new book. That’s the main reason I love so much to read series as The Bedwyn or The Westcott, is possible to revisit the same characters many times.
You have just put into words, why I continue to read yours books. AS a reader, I want the satisfaction or feeling that I wish I were there in the story, or friends with the characters. Many many times, no matter the time period, I can relate to the characters, their fears, their life occurrences. It makes for unforgettable enjoyment of the book.
It is so easy to form an emotional bond with many characters!
I think there has to be enough development of the characters to be understood. You do that for me and I’m not saying to myself ” why did they do that or they would not ever do that”. You have surprised me and turned a character around by making them better understood. Yes I have to be emotionally captured to feel content with the conclusion of the story.
I always feel that way when I am reading a good book, mostly with the main characters, but also with all the characters, especially with the close friend of the main characters. I sometimes write to the author and ask them if they are going to write a story about the best friend.
Characters in books have personalities too. Just as in actual life, some you love … some you hate!
Reading Christmas Belle…again 🎈
You have revealed your secret sauce! 🙂 No wonder I love your books so much–and give up on other authors when it is clear that their characters are one-dimensional.
Characterization is essential, especially in a novel about relationships between two people. Two-dimensional characters can ruin a good idea for a story. The way you connect and make evolve your heroes made me want to read other books from you.
I read romances while in my late teens, early adulthood, then stopped. Men were, usually, dreadfully domineering and very Alpha… not my cup of tea. And the rape culture was, also, very present. I was glad to discover that universe of yours and different type of characters I could root for, with some incursions within their own personal trauma and how they worked to overcome them.
I could breathe within too heavy reading I had during the past few months, while researching on psychology and the aftermath of rape, and while discovering some not-so-cool things in the process. So, yes, the reader can definitely find some solace in characters’ experiments, and some hope, too.
So thank you for making good characters we can long for!
I like series where characters are repeated and the reader learns a bit more about their personality, and life story all of which contributes to the enjoyment of the story.
I amin awe at your ability to create this empathy between the character and reader – I love the way the characters continue to grow throughout the novel.
I can totally agree with that. For some reason your characters resonate something in me. Guess that’s why I read your books over and over again. Learning something about myself???
I read your blog with interest and wholeheartedly agree. I personally need a happy ending or I tend not to read any more by the author. I especially like a story that lets the characters like each other early rather than have them sparring until the end. I read for pleasure and your books always give that to me. Your writing just keeps getting better. I’d be hard pressed to name a favorite (The Arrangement is high on the list) but have read The Temporary Wife numerous times on my iPad and would love a hard copy to give my daughter. I look forward to the next books in the Westcott series. Marj
Your ability to explain the process is also a gift. Thank you for this.
Your characters are so real to me. They become my friends! You have a real knack in bringing these people to life!
This explanation makes clear why Wulfric is so satisfying when we get , Finally to his book. We have seen him as part of his siblings stories and we get to see his total story.
We see him change and in the books after hi story we see more change, but he does not change too much. He remains The Duke because that is also who he is.
The emotional depth of your characters is what draws me to your writing. In real life, we hardly know anyone to that degree. Your characters seem very real.
Absolutely agree.. when I read a book I’d like to be the best friend of both the characters ..I need to know they are happy at the end of the day..I need to know they have found love forever…and to do that I must love the characters, delve into their world, feel all the love, anger and angst. Otherwise I just can’t connect with their journey
Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the creative process. Very helpful for potential writers among us.
Btw, please don’t include me in the drawing. I love the book but am downsizing. Thanks for the tips.
Your book “The Secret Pearl” was the first one to make me literally cry when it was over. It was such an emotional journey for me! I might not have wept at other books, but one thing I do know I am guaranteed with a Mary Balogh book is that there will be an emotional engagement with the characters and their story, and that’s why I am a hug fan! 🙂
When a author can pull me away from my usual genre and entrance me in something way outside of my comfort zone, you have yourself an author who creates a connection between the reader and the characters. That being said my reread pile is still the tried and true authors and why I have reread Slightly Dangerous more times than I care to admit
I think you have perfectly summed up what I have been enjoying so much in reading lately – I have never considered romance novels very intriguing or interesting until I picked up one that was written from alternating characters pov. It allowed the emotion to develop, and empathy with the characters. I also feel that two (or perhaps three?) perspectives are just enough; more makes for less depth; one for too much bias, and it seems to stagnate the story.
So it seems to me, you are saying one makes a better book by having a stronger focus on the main characters, showing what they are, and why they are that way. So that explains why you have to do “families” of books, the “Someone” series and the “Slightly” series — you can’t do justice to a character without putting him or her in a book of her/his own. And it is true that your books release their insights more slowly (as in brewing tea rather than making a cup of instant coffee), and so remain interesting and informative for many re-readings, unlike those who take a shallower look at people inhabiting their books.
I get invested in your books that sometimes it takes over my reality!
I never really could put a finger on the point why I fell for your writing when I first read one of your books. It was Simply Love. Now you have done that for me. I couldn’t have explained it at all. You have a knack to write real characters one could and sometimes would like to meet. Please keep creating them.
Greetings from Germany
“It’s the writer’s job to make that happen.” You do the job very well, Mary. HEA seems not only possible, but indeed, imperative.
I have read almost all of your books. and despite the fact that some of your characters share similarities, they are all quite distinctive in my mind. In a genre that is rather narrow (IMO) that is quite an accomplishment. You draw characters so well and complete that I find myself loving characters that I did not want to love (Freyja) and caring about a beta hero like Gerald Stapleton as much as an alpha hero like Con Huxtable or Wulfric Bedwyn.
That’s why you are the best.
When I think about the books that I’ve read throughout the years, the thing I remember most about them is the emotional response I had to them more than anything else. Specific plot points become foggy in my memory, but I remember the main characters and what they felt and how that affected me in turn.
In the case of romance novels, I think it is especially important for there to be an emotional connection. We know that there will be a happy ending, but it is the emotional connection the reader has to the characters that compels the reader to continue reading to find out how that happiness is achieved.
Your books are always a delight and have so many memorable characters who manage to pull at my heartstrings!
Love all of your books. Characters in series become real friends. Thank you and keep the books coming.
You share some provocative thoughts here. I read a lot of your books. Find out what keeps me returning again and again is that I worry about your characters. But you make me as a reader worry for your imaginary people is interesting. I also find that you have a way of digging into deep problems within human beings and also into the solutions they find for these problems. I love what you said about secrets. Isn’t it true that we all keep secrets? I love it when you hold back that stuff until pretty far in the book. This feeling of tension pulls you forward in the story as you read. I just want you to go say what in the heck is going on here, but you don’t and I am so happy in the end.
I absolutely love how your characters develop. Each one feels whole and complex and the access you give us to their deep interior selves is so essential, especially when contrasted with the social milieus and public faces they must so often wear. I’m deeply moved by the Survivors Club series and by the growth of characters such as Aunt Matilda Westcott (no longer! Hooray!) and Wulfric Bedwyn, whom lesser writers would leave as cardboard cutouts. I’ve only recently begun reading romance novels again and so many feel just very disappointing to me. I’ve been so happy to discover your complex and interconnected worlds that are populated by characters that feel truly soulful. I’m looking forward to many more of your stories with a great deal of eagerness.
Your characters are all people with flaws and heartaches. Love your books !
A good book let’s you discover the characters as you read . All the clever details make you appreciate them and relate as if they are real .
You do take us readers on the emotional journey of the characters. I don’t often cry while reading or watching tv and movies but your Survivors Club had tears trickling down my face more than a few times. Sometimes I really need that and sometimes I need the satisfaction of a well deserved happily ever after and I know I will find both between the pages of your books.
I love how you give your characters second chances!
I believe that I enjoy your books because your characters are real. I enjoy the insight into their lives and relationships. The depth of your stories as well as the characters are compelling. Each character is unique and worth knowing.
Sometimes when I’m ready a great story it’s hardy to crawl out. I think that is why you never want to stop!
Yes Mama. I can listen, but I’d rather read.
Your ability to create characters that I can care about is a phenomenal gift. The interactions of your characters are realistic. I love how your characters learn, gro, and mature through their interactions.
i hate when a book makes me angry for the character, or worse, makes me cry. but a book that gets me feeling those emotions without realizing it is a book i will loose a whole day to, read it cover to cover, and then start over again.
Thank you for such a wonderful explanation of why I adore your books. It is the realities and depth of your characters that I feel myself imagining myself within your stories. It is a treasure for you to express that in words and beautiful to allow us to read them and escape for a little while to the joy of your books.😊🌺
I also find one character to be me in Mary’s stories. I am so glad I am not alone.🥰
At the end of a book, what happened really doesn’t matter as much as how the characters made us feel. The joys, frustrations, anxieties, grief, etc. that our protagonists experience affect us readers. Mary Balogh’s characters give us all the feels, wrapped up in beautiful, well thought-out storylines. Mary is truly a gifted storyteller.
I love your observation that the reader needs to fall in love with the characters. Too many times, I’ve put down a novel because I don’t care for one of the main leads. My husband doesn’t understand why I’ve expanded my reading to include m/m romances as well. I’ve explained to him that I’ve just doubled my chances that I’ll fall for one of the main male leads this way.
You are correct when you write that getting to know the characters is all part of the hook that draws the reader into the story. The magic that draws them together -that goes beyond a mere physical attraction or certain chemistry, that je ne sais quoi or pull is key. The emotional bond between the reader and characters leaves me wanting more and for the story to play out. I get so tied up in the characters’ lives, I am sad when the story is over – a mark of a great book of yours & why I enjoy your series of books so much. You leave me wanting to read more!
Your characters are what makes your work so amazing and while I read and reread them. Unlike some writers, who tend to have their characters “ protest too much” they always have a good balance between reluctance and willingness.
Your books consistently carry me away to beautiful places while wrapping me inside the comforting softness of tender and devoted love. Your work has never disappointed me and has been a haven during tough times. Thank you for your heartfelt words.
I would love to read it!
I get so invested in the characters in a story that they start feeling like family. When I am reading a series I am thrilled when a couple from a previous book is talked about. One of the reasons that the last book in the survivors series is my all time favorite. A well written book does pull you in heart and soul. Thank you for the life and love you put in your writing.
I become attached to your characters and often dread the end of a book or series. So, success!
That emotional bond is important not only in romances, but in any successful novel that deals with human relationships. I recently discovered Unshelved, a cartoon series set in a library. This cartoon aptly describes a successful emotional bond:
Thank you Mary for reminding us, the readers, that it is hard work to write a story with fully developed characters.
This is so true! If I read a story with a main character I do not like, I stop reading. What I enjoy about your books is the characters are not perfect and they are often wounded. But they are essentially good people trying to become better. I also like that your heroines are strong and not waiting to be “saved” by the heroes.
This is why I find myself drawn to your novels – that layer of depth that draws me in as a reader and makes the characters real to me.
I agree totally. If the characters aren’t people to the author, they never will be to the readers. Authors meet them as the readers do but must look beyond the facade the characters present in order to coax them out of their shells. (On a side note, Temporary Wife is one of my all-time favorites of your books. The book features not only an interesting opposites-meet couple but also a wonderful array of siblings to charm your readers. Thank you for giving me an uplifting comfort read for these trying times!)
I love your books and characters!! ❤️❤️
Thank you for the essay above. It totally explains to me why some romance stories ring true, and others fall flat. It is almost like a trinity, and each part is related to the other: the two main characters and the development of their relationship. The characters have to be real, and their interactions have to lead the way to their ultimate love story.
I love how your characters develop through the story and you never fail to make me feel that emotional connection.
A good book os like being on an emotional rollercoaster. I get so invested in the characters I want to shout, cry, celebrate with them, smack them…lol. I’m also not ready to let them go. I want to keep following them beyond the story.
Love your books…❤❤❤❤
I haven’t read any of your books but after reading all these comments I will buy one.
Wow, loved your blog…Although I loved the Survivor Club Series, it was the Westcott Series that touched me esp. the beginning with Anna & Avery! He was not a typical “knight in shining armor” but the depth of his character was a compliment to Anna & her past! The
way they have continued to support the family members is amazing as each of the members have had to find their own strengths (by evaluating their past experiences)…& dealing with the present challenges to any relationship…
A good book is one that makes you feel things and you are sorry when it is over. A really good one makes you wonder what happens when it is over. Your books definitely do that to me. I always want more and feel like I want to grow with the characters. Like I need to know how many kids they had and what their kids are doing. I need to grow old with them in a sense. A good book also takes you away from the troubles in your life for a time. For that I am appreciative
I can’t wait to to read your newest book! I love your characters and their stories.
I definitely enjoy the third person deep interior point of view!
I identify with your characters because they are flawed! The aren’t always perfect: they are human. They make mistakes …..just like I do. You are the best earthy creator of characters.
Mary, I must tell you that you truly are an amazing writer! You weave such amazing dialogue and build relationships in such a way that always makes me come back for more. I have told you again that truly, A Promise of Spring is one of my favorites from you; it has such a nuanced way of showing how two people fall in love, and truly how marriage is choosing every day to love someone. I always come back to your stories, especially when I need to feel a bit of extra warmth in my heart. Thank you.
I love the characters that have some flaws overlooked by the opposite sex. The “blind eye” made a lot more sense to me after reading a couple of your novels. The scarred face, the limp etc. Thank you.
Your in-depth development of your characters is one of the things I love most about your writing. I can’t wait for this new “double-feature”.
I believe you can only connect to a story if if you can connect with at least one of the main characters. You don’t have to like the characters but you need to understand what motivates them. You need to be able to relate to their growth or destruction no matter the direction. You have to be able to learn about what makes them tick.
What a great opportunity. Thank you.
World-building is all very nice, but if I can’t relate to the characters then I’m not going to invest myself in the book. One of the reasons I love the Survivors Club series so much is that I can ‘feel’ these characters. They are people to me, not just words on a page. Grace Burrowes’ people have the same effect. Love your work.
I’ve always enjoyed how your characters never feel contrived and act naturally. It is great that you can go to the characters’ core and get to the real them so well. Love your writing
I can’t wait for your new books to be released, including all the re-releases.
Having an emotional bond with a character is the reason a book lives on in my memory. After having read so many books of many genres, the ones I remember are those that created an emotional connection. Thank you for writing characters that are so real. 🙂
Looking forward to read Harry’s story
Really looking forward to the new book!
Since my teenage years I loved Georgette Heyer, a very vulnarabel year in 2019 led me to re read Georgette Heyer and to find all books of her, then finding on youtube audiobooks read by british voices, all other kinds of regency romance and audiobooks seemed shallow to me. The only other writer of Romance I found to enjoy is Rachel Gibson, whose love stories are set in contemporary US.
Finding your audiobooks is a great treasure: Georgette Heyer hardly ever reused the same character or couple in another novel; Rachel Gibson has these meetings of complete villages where every single couple shares a deep love match, which is simply not realistic.
In the Bedwyn Saga I was afraid, how the six siblings should come together, each with a perfect love match, but it works. Sometimes the heroines behave a bit to much like contemporaries in relation to sex and marriage, and with less independent judgement than Jane Eyre or Emma; less fight, for what they want, to declare themselves. I would be happy to experience heroines that now they want the relationship, and the fight to accept is on the male side.