The Secret Skill Successful Fiction Writers Have in Common (It’ll Probably Surprise You!)

The Secret Skill Successful Fiction Writers Have in Common (It’ll Probably Surprise You!)

Readers read to respond. That’s a simple but often overlooked fact. 

And if that’s the case, then a writer’s primary objective, when plotting a story and every single scene, is to consider how she wants her reader to respond.

To be a masterful fiction writer, it all boils down to a simple word: manipulation. 

Face it: writers are manipulators. We manipulate reality. We manipulate our readers into suspending disbelief. We manipulate our readers into caring about imaginary characters. 

I am not using the word manipulation in its negative connotation of insidiously controlling or affecting things or people for a harmful purpose. This is a good kind of manipulation — one that readers welcome.

It’s astonishing, if you think about it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried and grieved for characters — people and animals that do not exist. That are not part of my life or my world. 

We create worlds and lure our readers into them. We create characters and get our readers to love or hate them. We are magicians with words, as we can weave stories out of thin air and, as a result, even sometimes change readers’ lives.

That’s magical!

Aim for empathy

When readers recognize the character’s emotional state as one they’ve experienced in the past, it creates a sense of shared experience. 

Readers will connect with the character, even on a subconscious level, because of this commonality. This is how empathy develops. 

One definition of empathy is vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. Just as a memory — a real event — can trigger emotion (because thoughts lead to emotions), so, too, a fabricated memory or experience of a fictional character can trigger a similar emotion in us. 

When we master the art of showing emotion, readers are drawn into the story, their emotions are engaged, and they feel a sense of kinship with the character. 

While empathy is one of the many emotional responses we might hope to stir up in our readers, it’s not the only one. We often want to spark emotion in our readers even when the characters show no emotion at all. 

Example? Picture a heartless man, detached and unfeeling, watching from the sidelines as a child is torn from her mother and thrown into a van, sold to a sex trafficker. 

The characters in that scene are feeling certain emotions, but what do we want our readers to feel? Not that same detachment and heartlessness the man feels. Nor the fear the child feels. We want our reader outraged, horrified, angry.

Of all the facets of emotional mastery, this is perhaps the hardest thing for a writer to do well — manipulate emotion. One of the definitions of the word is “to operate in a skillful manner.” We writers want to manipulate our characters and our readers. 

Masterful writers don’t just show characters emoting and expect readers to feel the same feelings. Every writer should understand that just because a character is afraid or angry, it doesn’t make the reader afraid or angry.

And even if a writer adeptly shows a character feeling emotions, that doesn’t guarantee the reader will feel anything at all.

Know yourself

Uh-oh, here is the hard place writers have to go. 

For some, this is a joy, a cathartic experience to delve deep into one’s emotional landscape to draw out the feelings needed to craft truly human characters. For others, this is a danger zone, a restricted area full of landmines and chasms.

Since characters spring from your imagination, they, in some ways, are you. 

What moves you, what’s important to you, what you fear and love and hate informs your characters. Your values, what you treasure in relationships — all come through your characters. You wouldn’t spend so much time writing about your characters if you didn’t relate to them in some way, even the negative ones.

What makes compelling characters that readers relate to is their authenticity. Their feelings, actions, reactions — essentially all behavior — must be authentic. And while people are greatly different, there is universality to basic human nature. 

While writers are told to “write what they know” and, supposedly, we know ourselves better than anything else. But the truth is, we probably don’t know ourselves well. Dostoyevsky said, “Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.” We are blind to our faults, we make excuses and rationalize our behavior, we live in denial of our failings and shortcomings.

So it’s not an easy journey into the self. Yet, it must be done if we’re to craft great characters who show believable emotion and to effectively evoke emotions in our readers.

Donald Maass says, “Fiction is an emotional mirror, a mirror that reflects you.”

Are you willing to dig into your feelings in order to create strong characters? If not, maybe you need to reconsider your choice to be a novelist. 

Emotional mastery requires writers to set up the dynamics of a scene in such a visual, textural way that readers can’t help but feel what they are meant to feel. Understanding that emotional mastery requires a twofold approach — the emotional landscape of both the character and the reader — is the first step.

So it behooves writers to learn all they can about the emotional craft of fiction. Which essentially means learning to manipulate emotion. 

What do you see as your greatest challenge to manipulating your readers’ emotions? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction? Enroll in Lakin’s new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers, offering more than six hours of instruction and analyzing more than forty passages from best-selling novels.

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Photo via GuadiLab / Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Craft


  • Love to hate. Sympathetic with view or not! These can be emotional responses from reader. How often it is that a minor character can steal the show for a reader.? Emotion is a vital ingredient. Latest criticism for this author’s novel is mention of a recent nerve gas poisoning. “too raw to be written about,’ author has been told. Emotion driven response. As ever, writers are curators of the truth. No more so than in today’s world of deception and contortion online.

  • EM Jones says:

    Should a fictional character be showing emotion in every instance or only in highly charged scenes?

  • C. S. Lakin says:

    I’m glad to hear it!

  • Katharine says:

    Although I write nonfiction, I covet really helpful hints about fiction, because any story deserves good writing, whether it happened for real, or not.
    And these hints have helped me a lot. Thanks so much!

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