Monday, May 6, 2024

How to Draw Readers in Through a Character’s Inner Struggle by Angela Ackerman


Readers have short attention spans, so the goal is to draw them into a story quickly. We can hook their curiosity through the protagonist’s actions and emotions in the moment, and use the setting, events, and POV observations to awaken the reader’s need-to-know response. These are good strategies to get us going, but to create real investment, we need to move readers beyond curiosity. To generate true connection and empathy, we should show the protagonist’s inner struggles, especially those moments that touch the deepest parts of their selves and reveal who they are by how they resolve personal turmoil.

Moment of struggle where a character’s beliefs and values conflict or contradict are especially important to show. Consider these:

·                  Leo discovers a secret about a family member that is both shocking and harmful. Should he go to the police, or stay silent? (Family loyalty vs. justice)

·                  At her university graduation, Darma is at a crossroads. Her parents expect her come work in the family business, but she knows that won’t make her happy. Should she do what is expected of her, or chart her own course? (Duty vs. freedom and self-fulfillment)

·                  Jim’s old friend Steve is in town, and two days into the visit, he asks for a favor: to lie for him. Steve’s worried about his crazy-jealous wife discovering he had coffee with an old high school flame the day before. If she finds out Steve wasn’t with Jim all day as he told her, she’ll send her mob-connected brothers after him. This situation seems fishy and Jim is an honest person by nature, but Steve’s invoking the bro code. (Friendship vs. honesty)

In each case, the character’s beliefs and core values are clashing, and it’s causing them internal tension. There’s a term for psychological discomfort caused by these contradicting thoughts, perceptions, values, or beliefs: cognitive dissonance.

Inner conflict, and the dissonance at the root of it is compelling to readers because these things are true-to-life. Readers know what it’s like to wrestle with difficult situations and the pain of not knowing what to do.

In these moments, a character experiences negative emotions, possibly guilt, worry, confusion, defeat, shame, and the like, and may question their own value and strength. If their emotional discomfort is strong enough, they may try to run from their problems and difficult decisions rather than deal with them. Readers understand this too. Avoidance is a pretty common coping strategy when a person feels overwhelmed or unequipped to handle the challenge before them.

Can you see how reminding readers of their own personal experiences makes them feel connected and involved? By seeing a character go through something they know themselves, they come to care about the character and what happens next.


Tip: Don’t Leave Inner Conflict Unresolved


Characters running from their problems might be true-to-life, but if we don’t reverse that the pace will stall, and we’ll lose our grip on the reader’s interest. An emotion amplifier can help us get things back on track.

Emotion amplifiers are an added condition or situational burden that a character must cope with on top of everything else. They’re a challenge, conflict, and emotional destabilizer rolled into one, capable of causing physical, cognitive, and psychological discomfort. Like adding weight to an already overloaded cart, the strain can become too much, and the character breaks like a cart’s wheel.

Pressure, pain, exhaustion, scrutiny, danger—these and other amplifiers have the power to intensify a character’s emotional state, making them reactive. If they lose control of their emotions they might lash out, act with poor judgement, and make a mistake. Not only does generate conflict, but it also resonates with readers who have also lost control and then had to clean up the fallout.

Reminding readers of the real world is always a good strategy for engagement, but anything that touches their emotions will be especially powerful. If you’d like to learn more, check out The Emotion Amplifier Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Stress and Volatility. To see a full list of amplifiers you might like to use in your story, go here.



Angela Ackerman
is a story coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, and its many sequels. To date, this series has sold over a million copies.

Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers®, as well as One Stop for Writers®, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent tips, Angela! Thanks for sharing here today.

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks so much for having me by, Alex! I hope this is helpful to everyone :)

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Overloading a character definitely creates a nice mess for the story.

Natalie Aguirre said...

These are great tips, Angela. And I really appreciate that you included some good examples so we can see the conflict of the main character.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Alex - thanks for letting us read a post by Angela - she's the queen of Emotions - via her Emotion Thesaurus series. Interesting post - thank you ... cheers Hilary