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.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Character Emotions — Part Two

  1. Susanne says:

    I like your new name – good advice even there!

  2. dorisreidy says:

    Excellent article. Love the example of showing, not telling.

  3. MaryCan says:

    The example is perfect, I think — and yet it is simple writing.

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