Recently my friend Juliet Blackwell and I gave a workshop on writing emotion that received lots of positive feedback. The participants told us it was helpful in writing and revising character-driven novels. In fact, they were so enthusiastic that I thought I would share the main points and exercises here. I hope they’re helpful to some of you!
And I’d love to see any of you in one of our future workshops!
First, we shared a rather wordy and somewhat confusing definition of emotion in the context of fictional characters:
The mental and physical sensations resulting from external conflict (plot) filtered through backstory and internal conflict (character)
Don’t worry if that definition doesn’t work for you. I just like to start writing discussions with a broad description of the subject, a sort of mechanical equation for what we’re trying to do. And I wanted to make the point right at the start that emotion is felt physically, in the body, even when we are not aware of it.
Then we talked about some of the common mistakes and omissions writers make where emotion is concerned.
Trouble spots/common errors:
â€¢ No consideration of characters’ emotions; no description/reveal
â€¢ Unmotivated or improperly motivated emotions (“he’d never do/say/feel that”)
â€¢ Relying on clichÃ©s
â€¢ Giving every character the same emotional reactions
â€¢ Failing to move characters along an arc
â€¢ Making characters unsympathetic by showing/implying only unsympathetic reactions and/or omitting sympathetic reactions
Because emotion is often closely tied to a character’s growth — or arc — over a book or series, we shared our thoughts about which characters need a character arc.
â€¢ Every major character in every book (unless they are “off-scene”)
â€¢ Secondary characters over a series
â€¢ Secondary characters, if you want them to be interesting (hint: readers really don’t care for two-dimensional characters)
â€¢ Don’t forget villains — even if they don’t get much on-page time
Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when constructing your character’s arc:
What does each character most want? (What is her story superobjective? If this is a series, what is her series superobjective?)
What does the character most fear?
Finally, we described the author’s job, a sort of to-do checklist for writing compelling emotions
1. Understand each character’s “emotional palette” — what they feel most often; how they view emotions; what they “allow” themselves to feel and what they block or repress
2. Figure out how the emotion feels physically for this character so that you can show (not tell) it.
3. Identify what each character is feeling in each of “their” scenes (scenes in which their arc progresses)
As a little bonus, we suggested an exercise to help you be aware of how emotions feel so that you can write them more effectively for your characters. Chanting the sacred mantra “Show don’t tell” softly in the background, we encouraged everyone to avoid saying things like “Sharon was sad” and instead describe how Sharon felt physically.
When you are feeling a strong emotion, take note of how it feels
â€¢ In your head
â€¢ In your gut
â€¢ In your nerves
â€¢ How are you breathing?
â€¢ How fatigued/excitable are you?
â€¢ Are you sweating?
â€¢ Are you blushing/ruddy/pale?
Here’s a handy reference: a list of dozens of emotions and variants. You’ll never again be at a loss to give your characters a precise reaction!
Emotions do not have to be dramatic or angsty to affect the reader. My daughter and I read a wonderful book together recently: LOVE IN BLOOM by Sheila Roberts. The heroine of the novel experiences a wonderful range of human emotion, from fear and insecurity through hope and satisfaction, with side trips into pettiness and irritation and desire and humor — in short, a vivid range of human emotion that made her very real to my daughter and me.
I think when readers thirty years apart in age, with very different habits and interests, enjoy the same book, it shows that the author was onto something special.
Join the discussion! Share your thoughts, challenges, or questions about writing emotion. I’m giving away an autographed copy of LOVE IN BLOOM to a commenter today.