ou’ve taken the time to create characters that are so real you’d know them if you met them on the street. Your setting is so vibrant you could step into it and explore for a week. Yet, readers fail to connect with your story. When you ask them why, they just don’t connect with your characters or your setting. They’re inaccessible.
What have you done wrong? Let’s assume that you’ve done your job and built a first class world and wonderfully well-rounded characters. If that’s the case, then you probably forgot to build a bridge.
Just like in the world you navigate every day, a bridge in fiction spans a gap. It enables your reader to move from her familiar, everyday life into your story. Before you learn how to span this gap, you first need to learn when a bridge is necessary.
“Just like in the world you navigate every day, a bridge in fiction spans a gap.”
Who Are You?
A bridge is needed wherever a reader may have trouble connecting with your story. These places occur when you create something that is beyond your reader’s experience. Because so many stories today are character-driven, we’ll look at character first.
You need to build a bridge if you’ve created characters that are vastly different from your reader. The most obvious examples are generally found in science fiction and fantasy novels.
Aliens, androids, and elves stroll through the pages of science fiction and fantasy. To be good aliens, androids, and elves—and here, I mean well-crafted more than I mean nice—they have to be something other than humans with silver suits, metal bodies, or pointy ears. They have to be aliens, androids, and elves.
The best way to accomplish this is to give them characteristics that differ from corresponding human traits. This means that their bodies, their psyches, and everything about how they view and move through the world has to be unique to what they are. How will the beliefs of someone who lives on a methane-rich planet be different from someone who lives in a world controlled by machines or someone who lives in a rainforest village constructed in the upper canopy? But the problem is that the more unique your character is, the harder it is for readers to connect with her. Thus, the need for a bridge.
Don’t think you’re off the hook if you write historical or contemporary fiction. Remember, a bridge is needed whenever your characters differ greatly from your reader. Even if you write about real places and realistic people, you might need bridges between readers and your characters, too.
In historical fiction, your characters will be just as human as you and me, but their beliefs and the way they look at the world will be vastly different. A Chinese peasant one thousand years ago believed she was a peasant because it was Heaven’s will. How differently will she look at her life circumstances than will a modern woman who grew up hearing and believing the slogan, “Be all that you can be”?
Do an accurate job with your historical character, and especially if she lives in a different part of the world than your reader, she will be just as alien as if she sported antennae, a third eye lid, or telekinesis.
This is equally true for modern characters whose lives differ vastly from those of your readers. Set a story in a remote village in the Arctic Circle or a Somali refugee camp, and your character will again see the world very differently from your (most likely) urban, Western-educated reader who may be skimming your story on an e-reader while sipping a soy decaf latte, waiting for her train. You too will have to build a bridge between your non-mainstream character and your reader. Fortunately, how you build a bridge is remarkably similar whether your character is an alien, an ancient peasant, or a modern refugee.
“You should begin building your bridge by making your characters even more unique.”
Bridging the Gap Between Reader and Character
But before we get into the how, a warning.
Many writers don’t try to span the gap. Instead, they try to narrow it by toning down their characters. Instead of emphasizing the traits that make their characters accurate and believable aliens, androids, or eighth-century Chinese peasants, they minimize these traits to make the characters more familiar. Resist this temptation! Make your character accurate to whom she is and when she lived. Anchor these traits in place so that, above all else, your character is the real deal. Then build your bridge by making sure that there are ways that your reader can identify with your 100 percent authentic character.
You should begin building your bridge by making your characters even more unique. Not all eighth-century Chinese peasants are alike. Yes, their villages and their homes are similar. They share common beliefs, eat the same foods, and celebrate the same holidays; but there should still be a certain amount of individualism in how they act and what they prefer. Play these up because one way to build a bridge is through this individuality.
Your reader knows that even though she may go to the same gym as her sister or best girlfriend, in many other ways, they are distinct. Take it even further, and create characters struggling to fit in or feeling out of step with their peers, and your reader will “get” this emotion.
Emotion itself is one of the best ways to span the gap between character and reader. Does your character live in an ocean trench? Then she might fear sunlight. Your historical character might fear an illness that we shrug off in modern times thanks to over-the-counter medications. Your reader won’t understand the fears themselves because the chances that she actively fears sunlight or a mild fever are slim, but what she will understand is the emotion.
Give your unfamiliar character familiar emotions—fear, joy, anger, and love. Play them up by showing your character’s responses, which may also be familiar to your reader. Where your ocean-dwelling character shies away from sunlight, your reader may shy away from bees. Your peasant character may take her anger out on a patch of garden, where your reader swims an extra mile—different individually but alike in their physicality. Each and every similarity becomes a plank in your bridge.
Another way to build your bridge is by putting your character in situations that are familiar to your reader. In the children’s picture book George Hogglesberry: Grade School Alien by Sarah Wilson, George worries about fitting in at school—something your readers will know from their own lives. In Sharon Shinn’s Archangel, the angel Gabriel struggles to make peace with his wife, whom he doesn’t understand at all, while trying to assume his new position as archangel from an aging and incompetent predecessor. Gabriel may have wings, but marital disharmony and workplace woes certainly sound familiar to more than a few of Shinn’s readers.
Remember that not every character needs to be equally familiar to your readers. While the bridge you build between the reader and your protagonist and her allies needs to be strong and wide enough for easy access, the bridge between reader and antagonist doesn’t have to be as sturdy. Readers still need to be able to connect with your antagonist at some level, but it’s okay if this character feels a bit alien and hard to grasp. After all, isn’t that the way it is with the “bad guys” in our own lives?
“Sensory detail adds more planks to your bridge.”
Where On Earth Am I?
But spanning the gap between unfamiliar characters and your reader isn’t the only time you need to build a bridge. You also have a gap to span if the setting of your story is exotic and unknown. Obviously, this is the case when you’ve created your very own world for a fantasy or science fiction story. Consider Anne McCaffrey’s Pern—lizards flitting through the air, trilling in song and deadly worms tumbling from the sky. Not much like our world, yet she managed to pull in numerous readers over the years.
She did it by feeding the reader sensory details that made them feel like they were walking the grassy plains and the mountainous pathways of Pern. Read her books, and you can see the plants or feel the sun on your face and the breeze washing over your skin. It isn’t that she weighs us down with detail, but she gives it to us using things we are familiar with—our own senses.
In this way, sensory detail adds more planks to your bridge. What would your reader see, smell, or hear? There may be two suns, but the early morning light is pleasantly warm. The stones the river flows over may pulse with light, but the sound the river makes is one your reader will recognize. For every unique or unusual detail, add in one that is more familiar.
You will have to do the same thing when your setting includes bits of technology or customs that are new to your reader. Describe them in such a way that they are real and believable and best of all, feel just a little bit familiar. In Star Trek, doors whisked open on their own, but they weren’t unlike the pocket doors found in many homes.
But fantasy and science fiction aren’t the only genres that require a bridge between reader and setting. If you write historical fiction, you are going to be taking readers into unfamiliar territory. Many of them will have seen the sooty streets of Victorian London on the big screen, which would make that setting easier to use, but what about that same time period in Beijing? You will have to find ways to describe it that pull the reader in and make the unfamiliar familiar.
This is especially important in terms of technology. What have you included that you assume your reader will understand? Recently, my critique group was reading a novel set in turn-of-the-century Montana. The train stopped to take on water in this juvenile novel. Young readers unfamiliar with steam locomotives may very well picture people carrying bottled water onto the train and not a train taking on water at a tower. This kind of disconnect is all that it takes to pull your reader out of the story. To avoid it, the author will have to briefly expand on this section to make sure the reader knows the how and why of the situation.
This same attention to detail can also be necessary in a unique contemporary setting. Imagine reading a story in which characters take an Esky on a picnic. If you’re an Aussie, you know that’s a cooler; if you’re not an Aussie, that detail may pull you out of the story. Again, simply dropping in a bit more information can paint a complete picture and make the world real and accessible.
And that’s what bridges are designed to provide—accessibility. No matter what kind of fiction you write, take a look at your characters and your setting. Then give some thought to your audience. Is the story you are asking them to enter set in a recognizable place and include characters who are familiar to them? If not, you’ve got the tools you need to build a bridge from your story to the everyday world of your reader.
Sue Bradford Edwards is a writer and book reviewer who creates scenes in her home office in St. Louis, Missouri. Read her work at Education.com and Prayables.com. To find out more about her or her writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey, her book review blog, The Bookshelf, or her website.
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