“You have to know the people in the car before you see the car crash.” - Sol Stein Stein on Writing
What an interesting thought. Stein mentions this in passing when talking about flashbacks, but it got me to thinking. Project that into real life. What happens when most of us see an accident on the side of the road? “Oh, that sucks, wish everyone would stop rubbernecking so that I can get to where I’m going.”
But what happens the moment you catch a glimpse of a familiar tail light? You notice the same off blue color as a loved one’s Ford Explorer, the vehicle sitting upside down in the middle of the road. Then you spot a two year old college parking. Your stomach churns, heart starts pounding. Suddenly all of those people rubbernecking are in your way for an entirely different reason.
You have to get to that ambulance. You need to see inside, prove to yourself that you’re wrong. Suddenly, you care.
Our characters not only have to be real before we put them in peril, we have to have a reason to care about them too. If not, we don’t really give a damn what happens to them.
This advice comes in most handy at the very beginning of your story. We’re all told to start things off with a bang, to get our characters into action as quickly as possible, but make sure you’ve got your reader caring about your character before you put them in peril; otherwise, you’ll leave your reader strangling their steering wheel and cursing the cars in front of them until later that night when they get the call that the accident they passed was dear Aunt May.