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>

–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.

9 Responses to Character Emotions — Part Six

  1. Doris Reidy says:

    Another excellent article full of great writing tips. I learn something every week.

  2. judithmcmanus says:

    Love this…especially the phrase, “the object of the young ‘swain’s’ affection”. (good one). I look forward to ‘sage of the south’ each week since I learn something every time!

  3. Vikki Yoder says:

    I love the visual!! My granddaughters and their mom are on their way here today….lots of ideas coming my way!! I need to see if I can find one of your classes for the fall, Josh!! Hi to Anne, too!

    • joshlangston says:

      I’m offering a variety of classes this fall: two at KSU/OLLI, one at ELM, one at the Booth Museum in Cartersville, and another at Soleil in Canton. Makes me tired just thinkin’ about it!

  4. polinto says:

    You had me at the baby in the car seat!

  5. An-l says:

    I could see this happening, “Looby bounced in his seat like a caged jumping bean.” The anticipation of getting a puppy would make any child do this, and you brought the thrill of it to life. I’m really enjoying these blogs each week, and I’m trying to absorb as much as my weak old brain can hold.

    • joshlangston says:

      I certainly appreciate the feedback! I think too many writers miss out on opportunities to explore their character’s emotions. It’s difficult at times, but it’s worth it.

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