Character Emotions — Part Six

These discussions about how to convey character emotions don’t come in any particular order, alphabetical or otherwise. So, if you’re trying to guess what comes next, good luck! But here’s a visual clue for this go-round: Please try to restrain yourself, even though we’re going to be talking about excitement. Considering all the emotions fully drowning in cliches, excitement has to be near the top of the list.

There’s a good reason for that since excitement can come in so many forms–from sheer joy to abject terror, and a pile of other triggers in between. Like virtually all emotions, excitement is only part of the equation, and it’s not strong enough to stand on its own. It’s most often partnered with something else.

The problem for most writers is how to avoid being snared by the verbal form of a leg-hold trap: clichés. It’s just too damned easy to resort to them! Consider these tired, worn-out, overused examples:

  • Jamal was so pumped he could hardly stand it.
  • Betty had butterflies in her stomach.
  • Looby couldn’t sit still, the excitement was killing him.

I have no idea what’s fueling the excitement of these three characters, but with just a tiny bit of effort, it’s possible to make those clichés useful. Consider:

  • Jamal tried to sit still, but his heels kept bouncing off the floor, and his knees pummeled the underside of the table in a nervous staccato. Do it, damn it. Do it now!
  • Betty choked back the butterflies abandoning her belly. She squirmed as she held back the firey eruption she expected at any moment. For God’s sake, what was taking so long?  
  • Looby bounced in his seat like a caged jumping bean. It chafed his butt, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t think about anything other than the puppy they’d promised him, and today was the day.

More often than not, the excitement phase of an event occurs before something happens. It’s the anticipation that drives those butterflies and pounds that drum. Time is a relevant factor as well. Imagine one of your characters standing in line to ride what they’ve been told is “the world’s scariest roller coaster.” You don’t just need a word picture, you almost need a word video to show the mounting anticipation as your player nears the boarding gate. It works the exact same way in a memoir.

Not surprisingly, it works that way in the case of someone waiting for something bad to happen. Imagine your character being transported to the gallows or the guillotine. Again, there’s excitement and anticipation, but it’s hardly the kind anyone would envy. But knowing what goes through your character’s head will make the reading of it irresistible. Or it should!

Excitement has so many wonderful flavors, it’s hard to know which to write about here. Consider the excitement of a first date, a first kiss, or a wedding night. Or consider what a young man goes through the first time he works up enough courage to ask a girl out (and I pray our over-stimulated society hasn’t yet made that an easy thing). And what about the young lady who receives the call? Has she been waiting for it? And if so, how? Eagerly? Impatiently? Or maybe with dread? Please, oh please, oh please God, let Alonzo call me first!

The whole “first kiss” thing bears further review, and not just because my work-in-progress involves a coming of age story. (Seriously? You think I’d try to plug a forthcoming book here? In these <cough> sacred pages?)

Okay, the first kiss. From the male perspective, it’s pretty cut and dried. The thoughts drifting through a young guy’s head are along the lines of: Oh crap, I’m sweating; can she smell it? What’ll she tell her friends? What if I suck at kissing? What if I mess it up? How long should it last? What if she laughs? What if I fart? Oh, God, I can’t do this!

All the while, the object of our young swain’s affection will be having thoughts of her own: Should I eat a breath mint first? What if he doesn’t know what he’s doing? What if he realizes I don’t know what I’m doing? I’ve only ever kissed my parents, my dog, my arm, and my friend Wanda, but she’s never kissed a boy either. Oh, God, I can’t do this!

If you’re going to write about excitement, you’d best be prepared to handle what comes next, because it’s often the exact opposite of what’s anticipated. At least, that’s the way it happens in good books. <smile>



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Character Emotions — Part Five

Jealousy is one of the toughest emotions to convey without scattering clichés like rose petals at a wedding. Knowing your character is essential to achieving anything like realism.

As a child, I vividly recall sneaking across the street to peek through the window of a neighbor’s house to watch my favorite shows on their color TV set. Color–imagine that! Color made all the difference in the entire universe. Black and white movies were a thing of the past, so why shouldn’t TV follow suit? Best of all, you didn’t have to buy a ticket, or worse, stand outside to watch. Oh, how I wished we could have one, too. When I asked my dad why the Nelsons had one and we didn’t, he answered with, “‘Cause Mr. Nelson’s a doctor. Besides, color TVs will never catch on.”

I remember wondering why doctors could buy color sets but the people who dreamed up the TV commercials couldn’t. It wasn’t fair! Anybody could see my dad’s work on TV. How many of Dr. Nelson’s patients ever showed up on screen? Once in a while, maybe, as extras. So there! Pifffbt!

Now, cursed with the wisdom of age, I’d have to categorize that issue as a solid case of envy. But jealousy? Nah. Not really. So, what’s the difference? For me, it’s the degree of passion one has for the desired object, be it a car, a cat, a condo, or a courtesan. Had I been willing to hatch a plot to break into the Nelson’s house and make off with their gigantic, 21-inch, RCA color console, hide it in my room and refuse to share it with anyone, then one might call it jealousy. Tinged with a hint of obsession.

The idea of possessing the object of one’s desire–provided someone else already claims it as their own–is one true test of jealousy. In my mind, at least. Another possible test would be the degree of guilt associated with it. If, for instance, your character is willing to admit he’s “jealous” about something, it’s likely only envy, because he’s not concerned about owning up to it. Real jealousy, on the other hand, bestirs significant feelings of guilt, and the person experiencing that guilt, and its cause, won’t be keen on letting the world know about it.

Like so many emotions, it’s a matter of degree. Spouse abusers, for instance, allow their jealousy to override rational thought. How many times have we heard, “If I can’t have her, no one can!” But please, spare your readers; don’t dump something that horribly clichéd in your opus. Instead, paint a word picture of your character. Show his passion, as unreasonable as it is. When he’s in his car following the object of his overwrought “affection,” let the reader hear his rambling commentary, his guesses about what she’s “really” up to. This can be especially effective if the reader knows his target is engaged in something entirely innocent, perhaps even altruistic. Of course, the jealous “lover” would never be able to recognize anything but betrayal, whether there’s any truth to it or not. What does he feel when he sees her on the phone or stopping to talk to another male?

Thankfully, not all those stricken with jealousy take it to extremes; they don’t let their feelings carry them overboard. A jealous aunt, for instance, may be quite reluctant to release her hold on her charming little niece, Rosebud. Maybe it takes a bit of extra energy from the child to make the aunt realize she’s being unreasonable. Auntie’s face flushes, but not from exertion. It’s the shame she feels because she allowed her jealousy to drive her actions. A perceptive parent would recognize what’s happened, and would likely act to smooth things over and lighten the mood. Alternatively, the parent might allow his or her own jealousy to fuel a sharp response, possibly followed by a dose of recrimination, or perhaps a smidgeon of fear. Is it safe to leave little Rosebud anywhere near aunt Matilda?

Jealousy can take hold of almost any character, provided they’re capable of emotion. Imagine two children fighting over a particular kind of candy bar when they both have bags loaded with sugary swag collected at Halloween. Who would be the real monster in that scenario? When one child eventually takes ultimate possession, what does he or she learn from it? And what new knowledge does the loser in that same battle acquire? How do such things play out later in their lives? Who becomes the true winner?

Remember your own past and draw on it to create characters readers can believe in. Don’t be satisfied with bland expressions like “green with envy.” Find a fresh way to present your characters and what they feel. You could start by never even using the word “jealous.”


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Character Emotions — Part Four

Before I launch into the next emotion on the agenda, I want to pass along a link to a website which provides an interesting look at emotions. Click Here! It provides a good discussion of Plutchik’s Wheel, a tool used to show the various levels of an emotion, from mild annoyance to mindless rage, for example. As I read the article, I thought about how a character might progress through an emotional range before reaching a point which could justify some dramatic action.

I’ve seen Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions rendered a couple ways, including this format suggesting a flattened cone. Draw the petals together in a point, and the scale of emotion grows in intensity as the size of the cone increases. The areas between the petals represent compound emotions.

We’ve all heard that a hallmark of great fiction is the way a character evolves as their story unfolds. The same could be said of a character’s emotional state. A person is unlikely to wake up one morning and decide to murder a co-worker unless something happened previously to trigger the thought. (And yes, I’ve been sorely tempted to snuff out someone’s lights, typically someone in middle management. Fortunately, I never had sufficient motivation to do it. I did, however, conceive a number of brilliant methods for pulling it off. Those will likely show up in my fiction.)

But, back to handling character emotions. This week it’s fear. Of all the many emotions we’re likely to write about, fear is one of the most common. Just consider how many flavors it comes in–everything from cautionary concern to full-on, pants-crapping panic. Use a thesaurus to review the synonyms for it. (See for yourself, right here.)

All too often, when I read the work of my students, too little time is taken to parse out the precise levels of fear their character(s) face. It’s one thing to hear the sounds a house makes as it settles or when the ice maker deposits a fresh batch of cubes; it’s an entirely different thing to see a zombie tearing down your door. Good storytellers will almost always add an intermediate step.

Fear mounts, as pointed out in the Plutchik discussion, and it’s a technique commonly employed in horror, suspense, and thriller tales. For example:

Let’s say your character is a waiter in a restaurant, and thus far his day has offered no challenges. When a strange old lady is seated in his section, he takes her order, but he’s concerned by the furtive glances she casts around her.

The lunch crowd builds, and her order is delayed, so he stops by her table to let her know she hasn’t been forgotten. As he looks into her rheumy eyes rimmed by blood-red glasses, his pulse quickens. She squints at him, her face registering suspicion.

“I asked the kitchen to speed up your order,” he says. She responds with a grimace. There’s something wrong with her, he thinks, then quickly dismisses the notion as silly.

At last, his customer’s sandwich emerges from the kitchen, and he hurriedly delivers it. Though eager to distance himself from her, he asks if there’s anything else he can do. “Refill your tea, perhaps?” She responds with a mumble and a timid poke at her food with one gnarly finger.

He backs away, then halts as she lurches up from the table, her face contorted, and lunges at him with a carving knife, all the while screaming about something wrong with her order.

In this scenario, even as narrowly as it’s painted, there are no clichés. It has enough specificity to drive the scene; it depicts a range of emotion (two, actually, one for each character), and it relies on my personal experience of dealing with testy people.**

Of course, the scene could be more fully developed with additional customers, a cantankerous sou chef, a description of the venue, etc. But the emotional elements, especially the point of view character’s fear, are adequately conveyed. In the process, a mini-tale evolves, and the writer is free to let it fuel a much broader plotline.

Fear can be a great motivator, but taking the time to build it can make the difference between a sale and just another ho-hum story in your drawer.


(**Full disclosure: I’ve never actually been attacked by a customer, but there was one cranky old reader who dressed me down for the way I ended a novel. She demanded a sequel.)

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Character Emotions — Part Three

The next emotion up for discussion is something that’s often mistaken for something else, especially in fiction. I’m talking about passion. At first blush, most people will automatically link the word to human intimacy. There’s nothing wrong with that; if our ancestors weren’t intimate, we wouldn’t be here. (And for those who might find this illustration improper, I hasten to point out that it captures merely part of a statue from a park in Lyon, France. And, to round out the mistakenness, the female depicted isn’t even human; she’s a centaur. Art lovers may click here for a look at the entire sculpture.)

So, what is it that passion is so often mistaken for? Obsession. I’ll explain more soon, for now, I want to recap my suggestions for improving emotional expression. The list includes:  losing clichésbeing specificavoiding ambiguityusing a range of emotions, and relying on personal experience.

When we talk about passion, however, it’s important to know precisely what emotion we’re trying to convey. In addition to being in the throes of passion, one can be passionate about something. One can also be obsessed with something or someone. The difference is critical.

When it comes to expressing sexual passion, which I’ve written about several times before, I prefer not to see the word “passion” used at all. It’s very nearly a cliché by itself, and if not, almost all the phrases which use it do fall into that category. To wit:

  • He wrapped his muscular arms around her and hugged her with a passion she’d never known before. <Yawn>
  • The passion in her eyes told him everything he needed or wanted to know. <Fer real?>
  • Armond’s passion knew no bounds. He leaped upon Dagmar who lay panting and exposed. Soon they…. <Okay, okay. I get it.>

In short, don’t tell me about their passionate encounter, paint a picture of it for me. But only if you’re absolutely convinced that including the graphic details of such a tryst is essential to the story. (My thoughts on writing sex scenes can be found here. Oh, and here. And here, too. Plus this one. I’m not obsessed–I use the topic less than once a year!)

One could argue that a character might be obsessively passionate, and that might actually make for an interesting player. I’m thinking of someone who can’t stop thinking about sex, and/or sex with a specific partner, or partners.

But people can be passionate about many things: art, music, dance, and collections, among other things. I had a relative who collected Pez dispensers. He had hundreds of them, if not thousands, proudly on display in his rec room. I wouldn’t say he was obsessed with them, but he was certainly passionate. He didn’t make the focus of his life finding and obtaining every last variation of the gadget; he had a life and a family he dearly loved, and they were far more important to him.

The point is to be sure you know how your character feels about things. Then figure out how to convey those feelings. Try getting inside the head of a man who is so narrowly focused on his yard, that he cuts his grass with scissors and uses a ruler to be sure he gets the height exactly right. I’m not saying a character like that would be worth writing about, although if I knew one in real life, I sure wouldn’t make the mistake of walking across his lawn. That, however, might make for a good opening scene.

All this, and we haven’t even touched on the concepts of religion. People can be amazingly, and often annoyingly, passionate about their beliefs, even without being fanatical about them. Whether you’re talking about characters central to a particular faith, the leaders and/or teachers in a faith, or simply about one of the faithful, there are many levels of passion from which to chose.

Remember the keys when writing about emotions, especially passion: lose the clichés, be specific, avoid ambiguity, use a range of emotions, and rely on personal experience.


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Character Emotions — Part Two

In the last session, the discussion focused on suggestions for improving emotional expression. The list included ditching clichésbeing specific, avoiding ambiguityusing a range of emotions, and relying on personal experience.

Let’s see if we can figure out how to pull this off.

Emotions manifest in twos, and threes, and…: Emotions rarely occur by themselves. We typically experience a mixture of them. That’s why the words “fear and loathing” are so often used together. (And yes, that’s a cliché.) There must be a hundred or more flavors of fear, for instance. Fear of failure, fear of the dark, fear of heights, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of attracting too much attention, etc.

Example: Let’s say we’re writing about fear. It would be a simple thing to toss out something like:

   Harvey’s knees buckled; his hands shook, and his teeth chattered. 
Something was after him.

Readers need more than a handful of clichés patched together with semicolons and commas. And even jazzing up the tired expressions–perhaps, “his teeth chattered like castanets”–won’t really improve it. If anything, they’re liable to lead to something humorous. Castanets? Really?

But consider this excerpt from Sue Miller’s The Good Mother in which a young mom finds her little girl terrified when she wakes up alone in a car:

   “Molly,” I whispered, and pulled her to me as I clambered in. Her 
body began to shape itself to mine, to cling to me, even before she 
really woke up. “Molly,” I said. “Molly.” And then suddenly, with 
consciousness, her grip tightened, and she started to cry, screaming 
in sharp pain like a child who’s just fallen, who’s bitten her 
tongue, who’s put her hand on a hot kettle, who’s lost.

This is marvelous stuff, and if one looks at it closely, it’s evident Ms. Brown managed every item in the list we started with. She didn’t rely on any clichés; her character’s actions were quite specific; there was absolutely no ambiguity; there was a range of emotions involved–from fear to pain–and I’m willing to bet the writer relied on personal experience to make the child’s emotional reactions not just clear, but real.

There’s a great deal of artistry in this sample. While the child’s feelings are described through tight and specific descriptions of her physical responses, the mother’s empathy is expressed in comparisons of the child’s fear response to a pain response. The reader is given the opportunity to connect with both characters since so many of the circumstances are common enough to be shared. The reader can easily place themselves in either position–the child’s or the adult’s. Extraordinarily well done.

We’ll examine another emotion or two next time around.


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Character Emotions — Part One

In the writer’s workshop I conducted this past spring, we spent some time discussing ways to portray the emotions of our characters. It seemed evident, to me anyway, that too many of the participating writers were satisfied with static statements and clichéd expressions. Finding ways to show a player’s feelings is much more difficult, but it’s a great deal more rewarding when readers connect with them.

In much the same way that sensory writing can give life to a story, so will the proper handling of character emotions. As with sensory words, emotional words may apply to both fiction and non-fiction. This is particularly true of memoir.

So, where does one begin? With the writing, of course. Go ahead and create the first draft; let the flow of the story dictate what goes in. If you’re feeling the emotions of your characters, feed those details in, too. The exact wording isn’t critical in the first draft; much of it will likely be revised anyway.

Nuke the clichés: Once you’ve got something to work with, start hunting for clichés. Chances are you’ve used more of them than you thought. Take the time on this first pass to get rid of them. Update those excised passages with fresher expressions. You’re a writer, so write!

Be specific: Think critically about how your character’s life has changed and focus on the details most likely to engender an emotion. Is Jody’s job grinding her down? Is Dan’s bank account empty? Will the children starve? Is there enough gas in the tank to reach safety? Why is your character wearing an over-sized blouse or platform shoes? Why is the oh-so-perfect executive letting his hair grow long? Can the musician feel the patches she’s sewn into her clothing to hide the holes?

Avoid ambiguity: Don’t be afraid to research emotions you’re uncomfortable expressing. If you can’t paint an accurate picture, readers will notice, and they’ll lose faith in your message. Rather than settle for labeling an emotion, make the effort to explore it. How does it feel to be abandoned? Lied about? Bullied? What does it feel like to realize you’re the one doing those terrible things? Unless you’re a sociopath, you’ll feel something; as a writer, it’s your job to capture those emotions and express them.

Emotional range: Characters need more than one emotion. Imagine how quickly you’d become bored reading about someone’s never-ending depression, anger, fear, jealousy, or other emotion if it tainted every aspect of his or her life. Players need more than that to become “real” in a reader’s mind.

Dig into your memory: Chances are you’ve experienced something akin to whatever it is your character is going through. Tap into those memories and expand on them. I’ve never been confronted by a sabretooth tiger, but some of my characters have. You’d better believe I relied on my recollection of facing a snarling pit bull. Was it the same thing? Hardly. The pit bull was on a heavy chain. My fictional maneater wandered around loose.

I can remember being jealous, envious, angry, exuberant, and most recently, very sad. All those emotions either have or will find expression in my writing. You can, and should, do the same.

We’ll take a closer look at some commonly experienced emotions over the next few installments. Stay tuned!


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Thank God for Support Groups!

The past few weeks have taken an emotional toll, and producing a worthwhile blog post after what my extended family and I have gone through just didn’t seem possible. But it occurred to me, finally, that I was missing an important point. I’m pretty much back to normal now, whatever “normal” is, and much of my restored normality is due to the kindness and caring of so many people in my life.

be positive artSeveral years ago, I posted the results of a little experiment I’d concocted. I had commented to my bride that I wanted to make a positive change in my life. Why I came to such a decision back then is a puzzle, since there had been no life-altering incidents in our lives to spark such a thing. It just felt right. Consequently, my resolution was equally low-drama. I simply decided that from then on, I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to say something positive to whomever I might be talking to.

I didn’t intend to go out of my way to find things to say or new and different people with whom to talk. My goal, if it could be boiled down to such a word, was simply to take advantage of those chances which came along to make a positive remark.

It’s been a long time since I made that modest resolution, and our lives have changed a great deal. We have a new home and a wealth of new friends, but the change I originally detected in myself pre-dated all that. I discovered, back then, that I felt a little happier, and I vowed to keep it up.

Fast forward to the present and the death in my family which had me so unbalanced. I’ve lost count of all the people who reached out to us offering comfort and compassion. It’s truly overwhelming, and there’s no way I can adequately express how much it means to have so many caring people in our lives.

Did my efforts to be a little more pleasant contribute to that? I’d like to think so. My bride has always been better at it than I. But I keep trying, because it makes me a happier person. The lagniappe is that I’m more productive when I’m happy. Now, if I could just lose a little weight….

Anyway, here’s a thought for anyone seeking to let a little more sunshine into their world: the next time you have the opportunity to talk to someone — friend, stranger, relative, whomever — find something nice to say. If you can’t say it about them, say it about the weather, or the future, or anything else that comes to mind. But say it.

Just know that it helps tremendously if you mean it.


PS: I haven’t given up on writing-related topics. I’ll get back to them next week.

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