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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Is Your Sex Scene Worthwhile?

When working with beginning novelists and reviewing their work, I’m often tasked with reading their very first sex scenes. One might be tempted to say, “You lucky dawg! You get to jump straight to the good stuff.” But, one would be dead wrong. Reading these fledgling efforts rarely amounts to a privilege.

What I typically encounter are vague scenes loaded with tired, adverb-packed phrases. It often feels as if the writer thought using the word “passionately” would somehow make the scene steamy. Yet, there’s rarely any passion on display at all. No steam, not even a whistle. Worse still, there’s not much creativity, either.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating detailed descriptions of body parts, their dimensions, or their disposition. I’m talking about setting aside one’s fear of writing a sensual scene and instead, using the opportunity to develop both characters and plot. In most cases, the actual sex is secondary. And yet the very prospect of writing about it often leaves those new to the craft sweatier and more nervous than the typical young lovers they’re trying to depict. “What will granny say when she reads this?”

A good writer uses setting, emotion, and motive to give full-bodied life to these scenes. Why empty the toolkit simply because the story demands that one character must jump into bed with another? The bed, of course, is figurative. It could be a hayloft, the back seat of a Chevy, a kitchen counter in a Manhattan deli, or anywhere else. With a little creativity, where the action takes place becomes as important as who’s involved.

So, you’ve got two players destined to make the grand connection. Must they be housed in a nice, private room somewhere? Hell, no! Maybe their best bet is a church pew or a bench in Grand Central Station. Maybe it’s a semi-private hospital room: “Excuse me, Mr. Frobish, I’m just going to pull this curtain around my bed for a few minutes. This won’t take long, and then we can continue our conversation about your collection of vintage teacups.”

“Yes, Padre, I know this is a sacred place, but these pew cushions you had installed are truly awesome.”

“Oops! Here comes the conductor. Pull the blanket back in place and pretend you’re studying the timetable.”

There should always be a motive. Real people rarely do things for no reason (despite what your childhood sibling once claimed). The motive could be–and all too often is–infatuation. “My God, you’re gorgeous. Let’s make love right now!” That’s as silly as it sounds, but it ends up being at the heart of too many of the scenes first-time novelists write.

How much better would these encounters be if the players involved had some reasons other than unbridled libidos? This is hardly a new concept, and one can find a bazillion stories where one character uses sex to trap another, whether the trap in question is a pregnancy, an intimidating photo, the need to inspire jealousy or some other common plot device. Here’s where creativity and imagination come into play. Find a rationale that hasn’t already been done to death. (I’ve always been partial to the concept that if Character A is busy having sex with Character B, he or she can’t be simultaneously murdering Characters X, Y or Z. Unless, of course… Et voila! And we’re on our way.)

I’ve saved emotion for last because even if neither setting or motive comes into play, what goes through the mind of a viewpoint character should be explored. Such thoughts might be entirely coherent and focused on the moment, but they could also drift.

Sensory input isn’t blocked during sex, at least not completely. Textures, odors, tastes, and sounds are likely to be present no matter where the scene takes place. Use them, for cryin’ out loud! Maybe water is dripping from a faucet, and the rhythm mimics that of the couple. Maybe birds are chirping, or an ambulance screams by. Maybe the toast is burning, or the dog is scratching at the door. Maybe the radio is on in the neighboring suite, and mighty Casey is at bat in the bottom of the ninth.

Whatever you do, take the time to explore the options. Don’t settle for a clichéd bit of prose that will satisfy no one. Instead, be a writer!


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Revisiting thoughts from the past…

This has been a tough week, for meeting editing commitments and dealing with the loss of a beloved brother. So, rather than let the week go by without a post, I’m doing a remake of one I first cranked out five years ago. It may not be shiny new, but I’ve given it a good going-over, tightened all the loose parts, and run it through the wash. It may rattle a bit, and make odd noises at inconvenient times, but it’s still worth a read. So, here ’tis:

While digging through the digital detritus on my hard drive–the stuff never seems to stop breeding–I happened upon a book trailer produced for Druids, my first published novel. I somehow managed to forget about it, even though it features a young lady who is ever near to my heart, the lovely and talented Miss Alexis Langston (who is now twelve, and who retains all the charm and grace she displays in the video).

My favorite sales girl!

My favorite sales girl!

Here’s the link:

I can remember back in the early 90’s when my friend, Barbara Galler-Smith, and I were feverishly working on the first book in what we hoped would become a multi-volume series. One of the issues which bothered me at the time was how my mother would react to some of the racier scenes in the book. I was in my 40’s back then, and my own kids were off in college. Geez, I wondered, what will Mom think when she reads the–you know–steamy parts? Barb had similar concerns, but as a middle school teacher, she had other readers in mind, to say nothing of their parents.

It turns out we were worried about the wrong audience. It takes so long to get a book published through conventional channels, that by the time Druids finally hit the market, my mother was gone, and I was concerned about what my grandchildren would think when they encountered my unbridled literary libido!

That still hasn’t happened, but it’s only a matter of time. I have a feeling, however, that little miss Lexi will be most forgiving. Besides, there are two other books in the series which are even worse, to say nothing of the dozen or so that have come out since Druids made its debut.

So, what’s the takeaway from all this? Two things: book trailers rarely generate new sales, and publishing via traditional means hasn’t gotten any quicker. I’ve got too many stories to tell to wait for agents, editors, publishers, marketers, and bean counters to give me their blessing. Besides, I’ve got four additional grandkids who may someday want to read my stuff. I’d like it to still be available. That’s a guarantee traditional publishers can’t give.

So, I’ll continue to go directly to my readers on my own schedule. But no more book trailers, unless someone else pays for ’em.


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Taken By Surprise

I’m writing this the day after my brother died. I tell myself I’m doing it because I need to meet a deadline. I tell myself I need to do it because something positive surely will come of his passing. I’m compelled to make it so. I tell myself I’m fooling no one. I’m writing this for me in the hope someone will understand. I pray Lloyd will see it, and understand.

I’m a mess; no wonder this post isn’t clear.

I ask myself if I’ve ever managed to convey through any of my characters the conflicting emotions running through me right now. I don’t think so. I’m not very good at dealing with personal tragedy myself, much less forcing it on readers. But isn’t that what writers do? Aren’t we supposed to distill the emotions we feel into the characters we create?

My brother Lloyd, on a much better day.

I’m happy that my brother is no longer struggling for every breath. He’s no longer having to parse his words, two at a time, between ever thinner sniffs of air. Life no longer exhausts him, and I tell myself that’s a blessing. But I still grieve. He’s gone. I’ll never be able to tell him another off-color joke; I won’t have another chance to laugh at his. He’ll never read another word I write. I’ll never again hear his over the top praise. We’ll never share another beer or watch another ballgame together, never again join our voices in disgust at politics and politicians.

I tell myself I knew it was coming, we all did. He’d been sick for quite a while, and yet the end still held a surprise. Too soon, too damned soon. I wasn’t ready. I don’t know if we ever are.

And my question comes back to me: have I ever portrayed such thoughts in a character’s head? After all I put those players through, did I ever capture the disjointed and unbalanced set of emotions I’m experiencing now? Probably not.

Will I ever? I don’t know. I’d hate for anyone to feel what I’m feeling now, and yet I know we all will at one time or another. Can I put that in a book? Do I even want to?

I only know this: I miss my brother. I will for a long, long time.


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Change Your Story’s Clothing

Every writer I know has come up with a story idea at one time or another which they like, but which just doesn’t seem strong enough to warrant the effort needed to write it. Still, chucking the idea into the pooper isn’t an option; after all, there’s gotta be something really good in there, somewhere. How do you dig it out?

Before you flush it away, give some thought to changing the tale’s wardrobe.


Consider how the Romeo and Juliet story looked when set in contemporary New York City. They called it “West Side Story” in case you forgot. Now, your story idea may not quite compare favorably against the Bard’s, but you ought to at least see if there’s some potential for changing the genre.

Let’s say you’re itching to write a love triangle story, but the traditional romance venues are already full to bursting with similar stuff. How would it look if cloaked in Wild West garb? Or maybe it becomes a sub-plot in a space opera. “Star Wars,” anyone?

Toss in a spy, a secret code, or a missing atomic weapon, and your love triangle morphs into a mystery thriller, a spy novel, or a pre-apocalyptic page turner.

It’s hardly a new approach, as one can see from these examples. So why wouldn’t you give it a try?

Imagine your theme is a coming of age tale. Could it be made more compelling if set during the Revolutionary War? Or maybe the age of Roman conquest, or how ’bout the Crusades?

Maybe you’re writing a story about the love of a girl for her horse. You could push that idea back into the realm of prehistory and discover you have a blockbuster on your hands. But if cave girls aren’t your thing, consider a science fiction yarn wherein your young hero or heroine teams up with a creature of alien origin. Oh, wait–I think that was “E.T.”

But just because someone has already wandered onto your intellectual turf doesn’t mean you can’t continue to play there. We haven’t run out of science fiction, western, or romance stories. People still love ‘em! There’s a good chance they’ll love yours, too. But only if you stick with it and actually finish the story.

Maybe you just need to dress one of your players in a suit of armor. So what? Maybe your tale of mistaken identity involves a fairy princess instead of a medieval scullery wench, a Viking shield maiden, or an Amazonian warrior queen.

Ideas are fragile things, but they can also be extraordinarily malleable. Don’t give up on a good one just because it doesn’t arrive fully equipped with bells and whistles. It’s your job to dress it up and add those. You might amaze yourself with what you discover.

And, if you’re still struggling, Consider taking a field trip to your nearest costume shop. There you’re likely to discover worlds you never knew existed. Maybe one of them will breathe some exotic life into your idea.

And while you’re there, why not try on something to see how it looks on YOU? I’ve done it. I even talked my bride into going with me. We pushed the clock back a couple centuries in nothin’ flat.

Now, quit foolin’ around and get back to that story of yours. I’m dying to hear how it comes out.

–Josh (Many thanks to my wonderful sister, Karen Boyce, for suggesting this topic. If only she could hang around more often!)

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