In a writer’s workshop I conducted not too long ago, 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!