To write characters with emotional depth, you must dive into the waters where the sharks of show-don’t-tell lurk, waiting to bite your… backside.
Most authors who have been in writing groups for any length of time become adept at writing emotions on a surface level. They would never stoop to merely saying “He was happy” – no! Their characters’ facial expressions are an ever-moving display of happiness, anger, and spite. Their eyebrows raise or draw together; foreheads crease and eyes twinkle; shoulders slump and hands tremble; lips turn up and dimples pop; lips curve down and eyes spark—and so on and so on. When done sparingly and combined with other clues, this can work.
But… by sparingly, I mean no more than one facial change per interaction, please. Nothing is more aggravating than reading a story where a person’s facial expressions and body slumping take center stage.
We must be as concerned with what is happening inside these poor emotional basket cases as we are about the melodramatic outward display.
Writing emotions with depth is a balancing act, and simply showing the outward physical indicators of a particular emotion is only half the story. Most times, you can get away without slo-o-o-owly dragging the reader through five or six small facial changes in a scene, simply by giving their internal reactions a little thought. Then the emotion becomes one the reader can feel too.
This is where we write from real life. When someone is happy, what do you see? Bright eyes, laughter, and smiles. When you are happy, how do you feel? Energized, confident.
So now you need to combine the surface of the emotion (physical) with the deeper aspect of the emotion (internal). Not only that, but we want to write it so that we aren’t telling the reader what to experience. We allow the reader to infer what to feel (remember we are still in the inferential layer of the Word-Pond). We must make the emotion feel as if it is the reader’s idea.
A short list of simple, commonly used, easy to describe, surface emotions:
Other emotions are tricky, difficult to show, and even more difficult to properly express internally. They are complicated and deeply personal, but these are the gut-wrenching emotions that make our work speak to the reader.
So, here is an even shorter list of rarely well-described, difficult to articulate, complex emotions:
- Ethical Quandary
These are emotions that are best shown by (maybe) an immediate physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations.
If you have no idea how to begin showing the basic emotions of your characters, a good handbook that offers a jumping off point is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This book is quite affordable and is full of hints that you can use to give depth to your characters, which makes the story deeper as a whole.
Just don’t go overboard. They will offer nine or ten hints that are physical indications for each of a wide range of surface emotions. But do your readers a favor: only choose one physical indicator per emotion, per scene.
Double Please. With cherries on top.
Going overboard in showing emotions makes a mockery of your characters. Subtle physical hints, along with some internal dialogue laced into the narrative show a rounded character, one who is not mentally unhinged.
Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. We have deep-rooted, personal reasons for our emotions. Our characters must have credible reasons too, inspired by a flash of memory or a sensory prompt that a reader can empathize with.
Why does a blind alley or a vacant lot make a character nervous?
- Formerly a soldier, experienced guerrilla warfare.
Why does a grandmother hoard food?
- Impoverished childhood, baby sister died of starvation.
Why does the sight of daisies make an old man smile?
- The memory of the best day of his life, sixty years gone past.
Writing genuine emotions requires practice and thought. I’ve mentioned this before, but motivation is key. WHY does the character react with that emotion? Emotions that are undermotivated have no base for existence, no foundation. They lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is shallow, a lot of noise about nothing.
Timing and pacing are essential. When the emotion hits and the character is processing it—that is the moment to mention the memory in passing. That way, you avoid the dreaded info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the needed backstory.
Use powerful words that carry emotional impact in your narrative, and you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be a highly charged scene.
To swim in the word-pond at the emotional level is to swim with the sharks of mawkishness, maudlin caricatures of emotions, and over-the-top melodrama.
The books I love are written with bold, strong words and phrasing. The emotional lives of their characters are real and immediate to me. Those are the kind of characters that have depth and are memorable.
A good exercise for writing deep emotions is to create character sketches for characters you currently have no use for. I say this because just as in all the many other skills necessary to the craft of writing a balanced narrative, practice is required.
Practice really does make the imperfections in our writing less noticeable, and you may find a later use for these practice characters.
(edit) P.S. I forgot to mention that this subject is so large it will be continued on Monday. I will include examples of what I consider good and bad emotional scenes, and explain why I feel the way I do about them.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Schmalz galahad.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Schmalz_galahad.jpg&oldid=80715597 (accessed July 10, 2019).
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Charles Ernest Butler – King Arthur.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Charles_Ernest_Butler_-_King_Arthur.jpg&oldid=289210320 (accessed July 10, 2019).
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Judith Leyster The Proposition.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Judith_Leyster_The_Proposition.jpg&oldid=354595803 (accessed July 10, 2019).