Character Emotions — Part Nine

While far from a complete discussion of emotions, we’ve touched on those I think are the most critical and/or difficult to convey in any kind of writing. But one emotion that’s gone undiscussed until now is also one fiction writers should treat with extreme caution: happiness.

Waitaminute! Treat happiness with caution? But why? Happy is good, right?

One of the hallmarks of great fiction, or at least readable fiction, is conflict. So how does one square the happy character with one who must face a dilemma or two? Or more–like an attacking horde of zombie Viking cannibals?

The thing to remember about happiness is that it’s usually temporary. People who run around perpetually happy are instantly suspect. They’re either up to something, or they’re insane. Either way, there’s potential for conflict. If they’re always happy, and nothing dreadful comes their way, there’s no story. G’nite Irene. Zzzzz….

There’s also the issue of mistaking contentment and happiness. They aren’t the same thing. You could think of it this way: happy is when your team wins; contentment is when you pay off your mortgage.

There’s nothing wrong with having a happy character, even one who’s diabolically happy. But more often than not, you’ll have a character whose happiness is either illusional or about to abruptly end. Perhaps even tragically.

For writers of fiction, that tragedy is usually a good thing. It means there’s a story coming, and if an author is willing to do something dreadful to a beloved character, the chances of that story being truly compelling multiply exponentially.

So, how does one depict happy? By following the same guidelines provided for any other emotion:

  • Eschew clichés. Don’t tell your readers Egbert was happy as a clam, which besides being a cliché is just stupid; clams can’t even smile much less giggle, chatter, skip, or hum. Any of which might be useful in portraying someone in the throes of happiness.
  • Be specific. There’s bound to be a reason for this joyful moment in your player’s life; don’t keep it a secret. If your character has just discovered a cure for something awful, make sure your readers know exactly what that awful thing is.
  • Emotional range. Like every other emotion, being happy can and usually does encompass a range of feeling. A newly engaged female might experience a sharp burst of bubbly energy when she gazes at the sparkly new adornment on her ring finger, but that initial zing will likely dissolve into a contented sigh or maybe even one of relief.
  • Trust your own life experience. Unless you’ve never been happy, and that would truly be unfortunate, find something in your own history that made you gleeful, exuberant, or just plain silly. Examine those feelings and amp them up or down to meet the needs of your character.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the formula I offer for depicting all these widely varying emotions is exactly the same. The emotions aren’t, but the strategy is. All I ask is that you try it. You might surprise yourself!

–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.

2 Responses to Character Emotions — Part Nine

  1. dorisreidy says:

    Your writing makes me as happy as a blue tick hound with a new flea collar.

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