When the spark of a new story ignites in my brain, often it is merely a snap shot, or the heart tug of an emotional moment. That heart tug can sometimes hit me so hard, and feel so real, that I know there is a story lurking behind it, begging to be written.
Erik Bork, writer of the mini-series Band of Brothers, notes, “as writers of stories, our mission is not so much to engage people’s minds by presenting them with things that are interesting. Our primary job is to stimulate them to feel something – and that’s what they pay us to do,” (Ten Key Principals to Writer Success).
I believe that at the end of the day, when a reader chooses a story, either from the shelf or from a device, they are searching to feel something in the same way we felt the first heart tug that compelled us to write in the first place. Whether that feeling is joy, passion, aliveness, fear, or relief, readers want to feel part of something they care about and connect with.
But as writers, navigating the vast emotional landscape of an entire novel can be challenging. How does one create the authentic emotions in a character necessary to create deep emotional attachment by the reader?
Obvious vs. Nuanced Emotion
I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny; clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult. Today they gave me comfort of a kind. I was wearing the right clothes for a hard day.
Neil Gaiman, The Ocean At The End of The Lane
When I first started writing I knew I wanted to stir a deep well of emotion in my reader. I poured my heart and soul into the emotions of my characters, allowing them to laugh, cry, scream, rage, tremble and sigh. Yet, when people read my stories the feedback would always come back as “I did not feel connected to the character in this moment. The emotions did not feel authentic.”
Did not feel authentic? How was that even possible? I had written entire pages describing the pain and sadness of grief. I had showered the page with my character’s tears. I had been brought to tears myself! How could this not feel authentic?
Because emotion, like dialogue, when too obvious can often feel ‘on the nose’. Similar to ‘on the nose’ dialogue, ‘on the nose’ emotion will feel inauthentic and ‘staged’ to readers.
So how do we avoid ‘on the nose’ emotion in our writing?
By understanding that human beings never feel one emotion at a time, and mining those alternative, subtle, nuanced emotions.
Oftentimes newer writers will give the character the first emotion that comes to mind, usually the most obvious emotion they think the character would feel. But real people don’t feel only one emotion at a time. Real people can feel a confusing mess of many possible emotions, sometimes even in conflict with each other.
Hunting for ‘On The Nose’ Emotion
Familiar emotions, especially when in neon lights, have little effect on readers. By contrast, going sideways to explore secondary and nuanced emotions can bring a fictional moment ferociously alive.
Donald Maas, Writing 21C Fiction
Open your manuscript to an emotional moment for your character. What is your character feeling? If your character is in mourning she may be feeling sadness. If your character is in a tavern brawl he may be feeling anger. If your character is holding her first-born child she may be feeling happiness.
But all of these are obvious emotions.
Have a look at your character again. If he/she is feeling rage, fear, loathing, desire, joy, or grief, delete that now. Think sideways. What other emotions could that character be feeling at the same time?
If we consider the quote above by Neil Gaiman, he gives the character an obvious emotion, discomfort. The character is on his way to a funeral, dressed in clothes that normally would not make him feel himself. Gaiman could have stopped there, but he didn’t. Simply stopping there would have given us only one side of the character making him a flat cardboard cut-out. Two dimensional.
In order for our characters to feel three dimensional they must feel more than the obvious, and so Gaiman showed the reader that while typically these clothes would make the character uncomfortable, today they felt like the “right thing for a hard day”.
The character feels two conflicting things at once, bringing him to life and making his grief feel more authentic.
Have a look at that emotional moment in your manuscript again.
Think of a few other emotions that your character could be feeling at that time. Perhaps the grieving woman is also relieved that the dead no longer feels pain. Perhaps the man in the tavern brawl feels remorse about damaging an establishment he enjoys frequenting.
Replace the obvious emotion with a less expected nuanced emotion to wake up your reader and make your character feel more alive.
Are you a cool or warm writer? Do you love to keep character emotions off the page, or do you prefer to splay character’s hearts wide open?
What strategies do you use to help bring life and humanity to your characters?
How do you handle character emotions in non-human characters?
Have you ever been surprised when you planned for a character to feel a certain way, but when it came to writing it down it came out as something unexpected?