(I wouldn’t suggest trying it with underwear though. Not well received–especially if not yours.)
Emotions are somewhat like elastic bands. The harder you pull, the bigger the power you’re building for when you finally let go. But if you pull too long, or too hard, things can also go badly wrong.
This applies to the building of sympathy by hammering down misfortune on your character, or building the importance of achieving a certain goal by piling on the reasons that success is critical, or dwelling on what the character wants but can’t have. The more effort and failure, the more page time devoted to that particular goal, the more you move the goal post out of reach, and the greater the character efforts, the bigger the reader investment in the resolution.
But watch out for the SNAP.
I read a book in a very popular series once, a series that I was actually enjoying quite a lot, by a writer I respected. But I put that book down half way and never picked it up again (although I may one day, never say never). Why? Because the unrelenting drudgery of failure got to me. The author threw the kitchen sink at the character, then the piping, and the wall, and then had the roof crash down on top of him. Everything that could go wrong, did, to the point of absurdity, where it actually felt contrived. God has to hate you for things to go that wrong.
I know what the writer was trying to do, and I know that eventually there would be a snap back, an achievement of the goal. The character would endure, endure, and finally reach the other side. But I just couldn’t bear the trip. I was looking at another 200 pages of sheer depressing drudgery and I couldn’t face it.
That’s the danger here. Your payoff in stretching the reader’s emotions is very high. The more you can do to invest the reader, and make them emotionally involved, the better. But be careful. Nobody really wants to be permanently depressed, and sometimes you can go overboard. Better to sprinkle in some small victories, slivers of light in the darkness, even if fleeting and small.
There’s also an overlapping concept here, that I won’t dwell on in the same depth, but might be worth noting: small modest efforts by the character can sometimes be very effective, plodding effort that keeps moving forward, even if not spectacular (think Harry Dresden in the book where he painstakingly built a model of Chicago, and gained great magical power from that tedious work) also seem to have some reader appeal. I think it has something to do with ‘fairness’ and earning your victory. A lot of people know that success is rarely an easy thing to achieve, and that character effort seems to validate it somehow.
Not necessarily much in the way of clear guidelines here, but some ideas to chew over when considering how to manage reader investment in your story, whether too little or too much. It’s something I want to get better at myself, so we can work on it together.
This image has been shown before, a watercolor dragon I did, recycled for some eye-candy. I have been swamped at my day job, up a few nights with sick kids, and finding time a bit difficult to carve out recently. I’m hoping that as the New Year settles in, I should get back into a more productive routine, on the writing and art side. Here’s to wishing everyone a happy 2015!