QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, May 7, 2012

Character Connection

One of the most common reasons for rejecting a manuscript is when the agent or editor can’t connect with the main character. Sometimes this is subjective; other times it’s not. 

First you need a multi-dimensional, sympathetic character. Next you need to examine your Motivation Reaction Units (MRU). A Motivation can be an action, dialogue, or description that leads your character to react. For example, if you are walking toward your house and it explodes, the exploding house is the Motivation.  The Reaction is what YOU do in response.

The intensity of Reaction needs to match the intensity of the Motivation. If your house explodes, you’ll likely react with more than a mere shrug. If the Motivation is small and the Reaction is over the top, then you’ve got an issue with melodrama. 

Reaction can be action, dialogue, visceral reactions (e.g. heart rate), and/or inner dialogue. Visceral reactions (the body’s response that you can’t control) ALWAYS come first. The rest is up to you and your genre. But if you’re finding you are getting rejections because agents aren’t connecting with your character, you might want to examine your inner dialogue. It might not be enough. Remember, though, it needs to move the plot forward, not force it to sit still while your character contemplates the non-relevant. 

Read the following three versions of an excerpt from In the Dark of the Night by John Saul:

Version with no inner thoughts
“Guess what I have!” Ellen demanded. “You’re going to love it.” (Motivation)

Merrill’s eyes narrowed and she held out her hand. “Give.” (Reaction)

Version with most of the inner thoughts deleted
“Guess what I have!” Ellen demanded. “You’re going to love it.” (Motivation)

Merrill’s eyes narrowed as she ran through the possibilities, except that whatever it was was small enough to be held in one hand. (Reaction)

Merrill held out her hand. “Give.” (Reaction)

Version from the novel
“Guess what I have!” Ellen demanded. “You’re going to love it.” (Motivation)

Merrill’s eyes narrowed as she ran through the possibilities. With Ellen, everything was always wonderful, and everyone was always going to love everything, so she could be talking about almost anything. Except that whatever it was was small enough to be held in one hand. (Reaction)

Ellen Newell’s hands, of course, were larger than most, and stronger, too. Even though she was nowhere near her son’s size, she was just as good an athlete as Kent, and could still beat him at tennis without even breaking a sweat. If Ellen weren’t one of her best friends, Merrill knew she could have hated her. As it was, Merrill just held out her hand. “Give,” she said. (Reaction)

Do you see the difference?


  • Copy a scene from a story in the genre you write (preferably a book you love/admire) and highlight the inner thoughts. Do they move the story forward? Do they give you insight into the character and her goals? What do you like about them? What don’t you like? What do you notice about the amount of inner thoughts on a typical page (this is going to vary among genres)? Compare them to your writing. 
  • Take a scene from your story and analyze each Motivation and subsequent Reaction. Is the reaction enough? Can you expand on it by combining more than one element (e.g. action and inner thought)?  What is your character thinking after the Motivation? Would it help your reader connect with your character if you wrote it down? (Write it down. You can go back later and trim if need be.) You’ll be surprise just how much you can strengthen the characterization by doing this exercise. Better yet, do it for the entire novel. Yes, it takes time, but it’s worth it if readers are struggling to connect with your character.
Stina Lindenblatt writes young adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative



Natalie Aguirre said...

Great points Stina, as usual. And I loved how you showed it through your example.

Robyn Campbell said...

Stina, you have helped me more than you know. This comes a t a time before querying and I need to do one more pass to make sure my characters connect. Love the example. :-)*waving*

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Great post! The flip of a sympathetic character is a fascinating one. Hannibal Lecter, for example.

Mart Ramirez said...

What an awesome post, Stina! Thanks. Great example on the house burning down.

Chef Jim said...

I enjoyed this article immensely. I'll keep this in mind.