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Make Your Characters As Emotional As Adele

You know that Adele song, "Someone Like You," and how it has the uncanny ability to bring people to tears? Well, I want your characters to do that.

Let me explain.

I was reading this NPR article recently about the musical term appoggiatura. From the Italian "to lean," an appoggiatura is a kind of grace note---often a dissonant, unexpected one---that resolves into the main note. It's a kind of trick that musicians use to push their emotional resonance over the edge, the little extra something that can bring a tear to the most wizened classical music-loving eye.

The reason it causes such an emotional reaction, however, is what really struck my attention. From the NPR article:
"Our brains are wired to pick up the music that we expect," says Sloboda. So when we're listening to music, our brain is constantly trying to guess what comes next. "And generally music is consonant rather than dissonant, so we expect a nice chord. So when that chord is not quite what we expect, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it's strange and unexpected."

When one unexpected element is brought together with an expected one, in essentially the same note, we as music listeners respond emotionally. It's a surprise: we thought we knew exactly where the music was going, but then got surprised by a little twist. Does this sound applicable yet?

To me, it brought one thing to mind immediately:
And not JUST because Harrison looks darn good here.
Yep! An appoggiatura is kind of like Indiana Jones. In Raiders of the Lost Ark we first meet Indy when he's running through a jungle, dodging poisonous darts and crazy stone rolling balls to steal an ancient artifact. Just a few minutes later, we're surprised when the film cuts to a Harvard-like campus, where the guy we thought was a hot sweaty explorer turns out to be ... kind of a nerd. Turns out when he isn't risking his life to find archeological remnants, he's a glasses-wearing, three-piece brown suit kind of guy who needs major convincing to go after the Ark.

It makes him two opposites at once: daring and cautious. Brave and smart. Archeology professor and ethically questionable looter. And who doesn't know and remember Indiana Jones? Those opposites make him a dynamic character that audiences responded to, strongly.

Almost all the best, most memorable literary characters share this quality. The reader thinks they know exactly what this character is all about, until they're surprised when a dissonant note goes against everything they expect.

The gangster poet (Tupac is still so emotionally resonant that people will play to see a ghost of his memory perform onstage).
The billionaire vigilante.


The nun assassin.

You want your characters to be as fascinating, as surprising, as emotionally resonant as these characters and people. And it doesn't have to be something on the level of putting on a suit and fighting crime in the shadows. Just think about your main character: what do they want? Then imagine the opposite. What if they wanted that, too? Imagine some of the possibilities, and how they might make the reader raise an eyebrow, or even shed a tear.

What are some of your favorite appoggiatura characters?
Sarah Enni

Sarah is a young adult author and host of the First Draft podcast. She is represented by Sarah Burnes at The Gernert Company.

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7 comments:

  1. This is a great post! I don't know if this counts, but Snape is kind of like that. He's the evil death eater - who spies for the Phoenix. Peter Parker is a nerdy superhero. The angels in Daughter of Smoke and Bone are oppressive, "racist".

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    1. You're so right! Snape is a fantastic example. And almost every major comic book hero is a great example---there's a reason some of those characters have been written about constantly for decades!

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  2. I was going to say Snape too. He's one of my favorite examples! I've never felt more emotion than when reading Snape's scenes, especially toward the end.

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  3. Hmm, very interesting post. I'll definitely have to keep this in mind when developing future characters.

    I'd have to say my favorite appoggiatura characters is Danny Hansen, the priest/vigilante from Ted Dekker's The Priest's Graveyard. Very interesting combination. :)

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  4. Did no one else found their brain jumped straight to Damon Salvatore? Just me then ;)

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  5. He's individual of my much loved instance! I've not at all suffer more sensation than when understanding Snipe’s prospect, especially in the direction of the ending.

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  6. Thanks for linking to that article. Such a neat way of looking at story-telling and how to invoke emotion. Awesome.

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Item Reviewed: Make Your Characters As Emotional As Adele Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Sarah Enni