Pricking the Reader’s Heart

By Gina Burgess
I put a book down to get some water, and found myself praying for one of the characters. Now THAT is character development. He wasn’t even the main character! I needed to analyze it and see why my heart was pricked so by that character.
Georgette Heyer could sometimes elicit in me that kind of involvement in a character, however I haven’t been that captivated by a character since I was a teenager. Since then, of course, I’ve cried over characters and their situations–but I haven’t prayed for one. Was it the situation? Storms invade every character’s life–conflict is what drives, and life storms, no matter what they are, create conflict.  Analysis of this character and his situation that pricked my heart was needed.
This is what I’ve discovered so far:
  1. Uncle Sol, unmarried, industrious, kind, loved his nephew so much he took on his dead brother’s huge debt without his nephew knowing anything about it.
  2. No customers for months means he can’t make the loan payment, so the creditor has come to repossess his shop and instruments in order to pay the debt.
  3. Uncle Sol feels a failure.
  4. Then the nephew’s employer promotes him and sends him far away.
  5. Kind, generous, loving, Uncle Sol completely breaks down.
  6. Best friend and nephew intercede for him and beg the employer for help with the debt. The debt problem is solved by nephew’s employer’s son.
  7. But the much loved nephew leaves and finally word comes that his ship is sunk in a hurricane.
This is the classic Randy Ingermanson plot set up that I’ve read in numerous good books. So what about this particular character made me care so much?
Maybe it is because bad things happen to really good people, and that stirs up empathy for that person. When it happens to characters, we have a natural empathy for the character because we’ve seen/experienced the same problems in real life. Perhaps our caring gene is stirred up by the underdog scenario. Most likely we care because the author has taken great pains to help us intimately know the character.
When people are happy and content in their life just the way it is, when they are blessings to others just because of the way they are and how they live then suddenly circumstance yanks them into a bad vortex, our sense of justice is bruised and we naturally want to intercede for them.
The situation can be something like a happy family doing well, bringing their kids up to love the Lord, and their 4-year-old drowns. We have an affinity for that family, maybe more than at first realized. Everyone has lost someone they loved, but somehow it’s even worse when that someone is a little child.
It is more than heartstrings being pulled to get that kind of involvement stirred up in fiction and creative non-fiction though. Think about why you care about a person. Then think about why you care about a character in a book that you have not written. Are the reasons the same? Different?
The reason a reader keeps turning pages is because said reader cares about what happens next. That axiom applies to both fiction and creative non-fiction. The reader needs to see, hear, smell, taste what he/she is reading about, and in the ideal reading world, readers do this through characters not narrative.What are some characteristics of a character you’ve met in a book (movies do not count) that spurs you to react?
Creative non-fiction writers need this exercise as well.

Think about an instance in your life that has erupted empathy in your heart.

  • What was it about the situation that spurred you to react?
  • How can you use this to help you develop your own characters?


 Share what you’ve learned with other authors. Your insight could mean a breakthrough for a fellow author.
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9 thoughts on “Pricking the Reader’s Heart”

  1. Yup. For me, a non-fiction writer, the goal is to keep the reader reading (even if interrupted). I want them to WANT to return and pick up where they left off. How do I do that? By writing as I speak, as if actually in a conversation with the reader. Reading my drafts out loud helps me “hear” whether or not it sounds like that. Thanks, Gina, for being characterstically thought-provoking.

    1. Whitney, thank you 🙂

      Yes! Being personable with your readers in non-fiction is a super way to grab and keep attention. Sharing stories to illustrate points is good as well. It’s how Jesus taught. We can learn a great deal from how Jesus taught 🙂 Being up front and personal was one of his most telling characteristics.

  2. My mother-in-law taught me about true love when my father-in-law developed Alzheimer’s. She fought to keep him at home where she could tend to him until everyone intervened because he had begun falling and she was not strong enough to pick him up. When he was moved into a nursing home she visited every day to check for bed sores and to feed him a meal and check up on him. The staff bonded with her and were also moved by her deep love. When asked, “Why do you keep coming so often when he doesn’t even know who you are?”
    She replied, “Because I know who he is.”
    I was there the day he breathed his last. While it was a relief, it was also difficult for her to find a new purpose. One by one, every staff member including the custodial staff came in to hug her and ask her to come back to visit. Everyone saw her testimony of love.
    She inspires me to love unconditionally.

    1. What a sweet testimony, Joni. My mom was the same with my dad. He was in the hospital quite a lot toward the end, and she stayed with him every day and all through the nights–sleeping on those cots and chairs, made by Satan himself, to make sure Dad’s care was the best it could be.

      If authors would pour that kind of heart and soul into their stories, it would be almost certain to prick the hearts of readers.

  3. I love this. I too have felt really connected to the characters in the books I have read. I don’t remember praying for them though. It’s fun to put everything aside and get lost in a book.

  4. Gina, thank you for the article. As I look back at my WIP novel, I need to go back to the beginning to “develop” character. Like many of you here, I want my novel read and the best way to that is develop characters and scenes that keep the readers interested to keep turning pages to get to the final chapter.

    1. Take heart! Your work will pay off! I am taking my own advice and rewriting my science fiction book that is already published. What was I thinking? Even though it was published traditionally, there is much work to do on it to shape it into a read that is worthy of reading 🙂

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