Friday, October 18, 2013

Writing Emotions into Your Book: How Being a Good Observer Brings Your Characters--Real or Imagined--Alive

Emotions reveal us, but we don't often reveal our emotions.  Players on your page are the same.  They show us who they are via movement, quirks, gestures, what they notice around them, their history, and many other aspects--rarely through straight-out delivery.

So a writer has to both observe and write the signals of emotion.  Characters who are well observed come alive for the reader.     

But we writers get lazy.  Just as we take real-life friends and family for granted--and stop seeing their uniqueness--we can fall into routine with our characters.  We copy characteristics in people we know, or we use stock images for emotions without trying hard.  Our observations grow limited and (to the reader) boring and predictable.

This creates what's know as the "flat" character.  The antidote is to let yourself really observe, so you can see around the stereotype and create fresh, original characters.

Four Fresh Ways to Reveal Character  
Characters and narrators are revealed to the reader in four main ways:

1.  interior thoughts and feelings  (body sensations) and externalized gestures, facial expressions, and movement
2.  personal history (back story) that shows motive  
3.  what they choose to see in their current surroundings, including objects of obsession 
4.  actions and dialogue
A student in one of my classes turned me on to a very handy guide:  The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.  It's now on my Kindle, a steady resource to get me out of character-writing ruts.   
The Emotion Thesaurus addresses the first aspect of writing character:  how emotion is revealed via gesture, facial expressions, movement, and body sensations.  Each page in the Thesaurus has a common emotion:  anger, worry, joy, etc.   

The authors list 12-20 different ways this emotion would be recognized by a reader, from internal sensations to mental responses to physical signals.  For instance, if you want to show a character being in denial in a scene, you can choose from "a steady, even tone" (clue of suppressed denial) or "mouth going dry" (internal sensation) or "tucking in one's upper lip" (physical signal) or any of at least thirty other revealing choices.

How about personal history, or accurately placed backstory?  Backstory  is a great way to show a character's current feelings, as long as it's thematically connected.  For instance:  A man in his thirties is watching his son on a diving board.  He feels unexplained terror--his son will have an accident.  Flash to a short (two sentence) memory as a boy of fifteen watching a childhood playmate's death at a pool party.  Because these two moments are juxtaposed in the scene, the backstory helps the reader see why the character yells, "Be careful!" at that moment.   

"Container"--Surroundings Reflect Our Feelings  
We often ignore our surroundings, but in times of extreme emotion, what we fixate on tells a lot about our internal state.  Pay attention to what I call the "container" of your story, the setting or surroundings.   

A man lines up his silverware at the dinner table whenever he wants his kids to really listen to what he's going to say.  The emotion is a need for control.  His silverware is the aspect of his surroundings that reflects this.  A young girl looks at the birdfeeder out the window when she is upset but trying not to cry.  The birds are so free, and she is so restricted.   

These are fairly obvious examples and you can get much more subtle and original.  But overall:  Whatever your characters notice, will tell readers a lot about their feelings at that moment. 

Action and Dialogue  
Last but most used:  action and dialogue. We humans watch each other closely to figure out motive, danger, and desire--so observe how people do this in real life and transfer it to your pages.   

Tip:  If you can provide inconsistency between a person's action and words, it makes it even more emotionally tense.   

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Choose two of your characters--real or imagined--and describe them by each of these four aspects:  emotions, backstory, container, and actions/dialogue.   

2.   Notice where these two characters differ from each other.   

3.  Write a scene that shows them together, each wanting something and not getting it, using these four aspects.

If you'd like to join me for a day of character-writing tools and techniques, I'll be teaching a one-day workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis on Sunday, October 20, called "Container, Players, Dilemma:  Three Elements to Make Your Writing Come Alive."  It begins at 10:30 and the cost is $99.  Lots of great writing exercises to help you use these four aspects of story.  For more information or to register, click here.  

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