On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes writes about your character’s emotional support system, what it does for them, and reasons to rip it away.
Written by JJ Barnes
When you start your story, you will most likely put in an emotional support system around your Protagonist. You give them friends, family, and work colleagues. People who they can trust and talk to, even in times of crisis. In this blog I’ll be explaining the reasons why, throughout the course of your story, you should rip those emotional support systems away.
Why Write An Emotional Support System
Your Protagonist needs to read like a character who has an entire existence prior to the start of your story. That means a life filled with relationships and experiences that you’ve not been with them for, but happened none the less.
The development of an emotional support system is one of the most fundamental parts of getting through life. We need connections. Whether it’s family, friends, or people we work with, we need human interaction. We need people we can share our thoughts and fears with, people who will hold our hand when we’re down, celebrate with us when we’re successful.
By giving your Protagonist that support system, you’re showing that they lived a life before the start of your story. You’re showing they’re real.
In story terms, the emotional support system also means dialogue. Dialogue keeps your story moving, provides conflict and entertainment. If your Protagonist has nobody to talk to it, your story will feel slower. The system around them are a fast and entertaining way of communicating to your audience what your character wants, what they’re scared of or hopeful for, and any plans and ideas they have for achieving their story goal.
How To Write An Emotional Support System
When you first start writing, look at who your Protagonist is. The reason you’re joining them for this part of your life is because of a story goal. They become motivated at the Inciting Incident, and the story follows them on that journey. Once that has been figured out, work out the people they need around them.
If you overload the immediate story with emotional support system characters it will feel crowded. You need a small inner circle of characters that are the focus point, and then the wider circle of characters that can interact and help move the story, but aren’t dominating.
How many emotional support characters they need will vary. A teenage girl is more likely to have a need for people than an adult man.
For instance, Buffy The Vampire Slayer has the scooby gang, a group that only grows larger the longer the story goes on for, and her family. Her mother, Joyce, whilst challenging for Buffy also offers security and comfort. Her friends are both emotional support and practical support in their efforts to help her slay monsters.
However, Batman has fewer support characters. Whilst he too is questing to slay monsters, his main support system is just one man, Alfred. He may be joined by Robin, and in later films he has the Justice League, but for the most part it’s Batman against the world, with Alfred for support.
Why You Should Remove The Emotional Support System
Your story is entertaining because of the problems you make your Protagonist overcome. The challenges and obstacles you put in their way as they fight to get what they want. Without challenges nothing will be going on, your character will just go and get it. Story over.
Being willing to fight through a series of challenges means the stakes of your story matter. If they aren’t willing to fight past challenges, it suggests what they want doesn’t matter. If what they want doesn’t matter, your story doesn’t matter. So, giving them challenges proves the story matters and gives them entertaining things to do.
The emotional support system your character depends on should be the final challenge. If your character has them there to hold their hand, help them, encourage them, they’re still safe. The stakes might be high, but the fear of failure will be lessened because at least they have people to pick them up and comfort them.
If your Protagonist loses their emotional support system and STILL fights on, still pushes and still tries, the stakes have never been higher. They’re risking everything and being forced to go it alone. It will be tense, it will be scary, and it will matter so much more. It is the proof that they truly deserve what it is they want. Going it alone is brave and it shows determination and tenacity. You will root for them because of that courage in the face of hopelessness.
Your audience will be invested because the idea of watching a character who has lost everything lose even more will be devastating. They will want to stick it out and hope for the best outcome.
How To Remove The Emotional Support System
If you want to do this, and it’s not essential for every story, you need to really find a good reason for that support system to go. Because if they’re happy to just ditch your character for no reason it invalidates all the emotional investment that has been put in them up to this point.
When your characters’ emotional support system is removed, it needs to either be through death, or come at a huge emotional toll to both sides.
In Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 7, Buffy faces mutiny and abandonment by her entire network. She has her friends, her family, and her team of Potential Slayers all working together to try and stop the world ending. They’re frightened and frustrated, feeling like Buffy cannot lead and judging her decision to work with Spike, who is a proven danger.
Their choice to abandon Buffy doesn’t come about easily. They’re struggling with their own story goals and carry the emotional burden of turning on her. (That said, I personally feel they were still very wrong.)
Whether you bring them back together as a reunion to face the final big challenge together, or make your character go it alone and truly be isolated until the end, is up to you. Both have merit, either in a powerful reunion to fight together, or in forcing your character to stand alone in true strength. It really depends on the kind of story you’re telling and what you think will suit it more. As long as your character must face abandonment and isolation, and the potential of failure alone, you’re going to get the impact of removing the emotional support system.
Emotional Investment In Your Protagonist
A character being pushed and hurt and fight on will draw your audience in. Buffy Summers is put through Hell. She is beaten, hurt, killed, dragged from Heaven, watching people she loves die despite everything she is trying to do, and then finally abandoned. She is made to suffer. The audience feels for her and cares. They want to stick it out and see her life come good.
That final abandonment by the people they’ve depended on is the ultimate emotional draw. Feeling isolated and abandoned is something many of us have experienced and solitude can be so painful. You want the Protagonist you’ve grown to love to have what they deserve and you want to stick around to see them get it. And to have their people back by their side.
We hate to see the people we love in pain, we care about them. And that feeling in your audience of having hopes and an emotional response to your character will make them stick with your story.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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