Using a focal character to evoke emotions

Readers read because they care about the story.

Let me repeat that—they care about the story.

Caring involves emotions, which is why powerful stories evoke reader emotions.

So how do you get your reader to care about the story?

“You give them a stake in what happens.” –Dwight Swain

When you start a scene, first of all pick a focal character for the reader to follow. This is also why one-point-of-view-per-scene has become more preferred by editors. When there’s one person for the reader to follow, it makes it easier to engage that reader’s emotions.

The focal character doesn’t have to be the protagonist. It can be the antagonist, or it can be a secondary character. It can be someone the reader likes or someone the reader hates with a passion. Regardless, pick one person as the focal character for the scene.

Then, give your focal character something to win or lose in that scene. Give them something at stake in that scene.

The reader will have someone to root for or against for that scene. Suddenly, your reader will have an emotional stake in that scene.

Suddenly, the events and plot points that happen in the scene aren’t just actions, aren’t just plot points. Suddenly, the events in the scene have emotional significance for the reader.

You want your reader to emotionally react to the events in the scene.

So pick your focal character for each scene, and have him/her strive for something for that scene. Maybe Bobby wants to ask Jennie out on a date. Maybe Marsha needs to confront her husband about her suspicions that he’s having an affair. Maybe the villain needs to kill the Ambassador before 007 can stop him.

Your focal character—whether someone likeable or unlikeable—and that character’s stake in the scene will get your reader to care about the scene, about the story.