Updated: Mar 3, 2021
I would argue they are the very fabric of human beings. They govern almost everything we do. How we talk to someone. How we live our lives. The actions we take. They are powerful and can make us do things we wouldn’t normally do, otherwise. They can make us euphoric or completely catatonic.
I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum.
Humans are so, incredibly complex. Motivations are not cut and dry or linear or even make sense to the person experiencing them. Why should our characters be anything different? Often, when characters in a book fall flat, it is because they lack emotional substance and diversity. I have read many books where the author thinks emotion has to be the extreme in order to be felt by the reader.
But actually, the more authentic the emotion, the more your reader will connect. So that means…
Emotions that always don’t make sense
Emotions that make your character do uncharacteristic or stupid things
Emotions we can relate to
To write believable and realistic emotions you must do a few things:
Know Your Characters
In order to create authentic emotions, it is extremely important to make sure you know who your characters are. That means creating character sheets (if that’s your thing) or putting together some other system to keep all of their nuances organized. Once you know who your characters are, you will know how they react. Hence – their emotional make-up.
Writing from Experience
This is my favorite part of writing emotion. I have a notebook I keep with me at all times. I write down various things: title ideas, book ideas, scenes, descriptions of everyday experiences that strike me at the moment (mostly, weather & the sky). But I also write emotions. What I’m feeling, what got me there, what’s going through my mind, my body, what I want to do because of those emotions, etc. It’s therapeutic but also a great resource for writing.
Some experiences I’ve written down:
Being so angry while driving and that I just wanted to drive and drive and not stop; smacking the steering wheel and crying
When I’ve gone through my depression cycles and the feeling of just absolute nothingness and lack of everything that makes you emotionally human
The utter joy of holding my newborn for the first time since bringing her home from the hospital and the immediate knowledge that I would die for her without a second thought
A group of traveling musicians on the side of a freeway onramp; all their equipment was stacked around them and they had a simple cardboard sign that said, “Smile” (I’m still going to try and use that in a story, somewhere!)
The point is, you can take anything that may be mundane and everyday and write it in a way that isn’t. Turning it into something that is amazing and rich and from a viewpoint that only you can show the reader.
Books on Craft
The Emotional Thesaurus, Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisis: I absolutely adore the Emotion Thesaurus & The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. There is an entire series from the authors (Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi) but it really helps you dive in deep. You choose an emotion and the thesaurus will give you the definition, physical signals & behaviors, internal sensations, mental responses, acute/long-term responses for the emotion, signs that the emotion is being suppressed, what it can escalate to, de-escalate to, associated power verbs, and writer’s tips.
You guys, these books ARE MONEY.
The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Donald Maass: I own a few of his books, I’m not going to lie. I used to go to a writer’s conference that he would speak at and he is amazing. I purchased this book at the recommendation of @MeganBethDavies over at @The_Writer_Community and I haven’t been disappointed. The book is all about connecting to your readers through making them feel.
Dynamic Characters, Nancy Kress: This book focuses on the fact that characters are instrumental to your story, that your story is nothing without them. It’s less on actual emotion but understanding your characters and the importance of their place and then creating them to be authentic and tangible will help you generate believable emotions.
Creating Character Arcs, K.M. Weiland: Again, this one is more about main sure your characters are well-rounded and have full arcs so that you can insert those believable emotions. She guides you through the 3 Act Structure as it relates to your character’s arc.
Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card: Card is another one of my favorite authors on the craft of writing
MasterClass on writing is another great resource LinkedIn Learning seminars on related subjects. TED Talks.
Don’t only think that if it’s not a book/class on writing that it isn’t valuable. Emotions are psychology. So read and watch about the mind. About how people’s brains work in different situations under different stimuli. Often (and this is a secret I don’t talk about much) I will go for self-help books that relate to mental and emotional issues. They are a great resource for dealing with characters (and people in your own life) that have very deep emotions or psychologies. One of my favorites for characters with deep hurts are “Hurt People, Hurt People” by Sandra D. Wilson, Ph.D.
Here are some things to consider when writing a particularly emotional scene:
What is the scene?
How did it get so bad (the little steps that led to this place)?
What triggered your character’s reaction?
What is the exploding emotion (the emotion that the reader sees, that the character is reacting to)?
What are the underlying emotions that are feeding the exploding emotion?
What was the original emotion that festered into everything else (from the emotional inciting incident)?
How could it get worse? How could it get better?
How would a normal person react to this emotion?
How does your character react?
Are they aware of how they’re reacting? If so, what do they think of their reaction?
How do others around your character react/think of this?
How is it going to affect their next decision? The next scene? The rest of the book? Relationships?
What does your character look like after this? Is it a moment of change? Is it par for the course?
Now that I’ve given you some things to think about, resources to go to, and a rough guideline to writing emotion a little bit better, go and write!
See you at #TheWriterCommunity!