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.


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.

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