Writing Characters: Why Emotion Matters

It’s a new year, but as I coach some fiction writers, I still see many of the same problems as in years past. One of the barriers to readers experiencing your fiction in the most complete way is by giving details about a character rather than painting that character in emotional strokes.

Writing Tip for Today: How can you introduce characters that
get out of the head and into the gut?

TMI Approach

Many writers introduce characters by providing readers with details about that person: Name, rank, serial number. Blue eyes or brown. Occupation, where they live or close relationships are often recounted. All good info, to be sure. Yet these kinds of data are difficult to arouse a reader’s most important reaction—the gut-punch of emotion that not only draws the character but also encourages readers to have an opinion about that character.

Description runs off the rails when it strays into RUE
territory. RUE stands for Resist the Urge to Explain (thanks, JR!) and is a
sure emotion killer. When you explain how or why a character does or doesn’t do
something, you let all the tension out of the scene. Readers want to interpret
actions, body language and dialogue. They don’t like to be told. Look for these
pesky RUEs in prepositional phrases tacked on after action. EX” He squeezed her
hand to see if she’d squeeze back. She gasped in fear. He ran to
the door in case it was the cops.

Most writers won’t succeed in eliciting a gut reaction to their character by stating facts. Facts, dry and mostly boring, don’t get us pumped up or committed to following a character. Instead of describing your character in detail, introduce him/her by showing readers what he/she cares about. What he’s mad about. What she longs for. As author Lisa Cron says, “An effective story, it turns out, enters through your gut, looks out through your eyes, and is never really analyzed by your conscious brain.”

Wilson Principle

Writers often feel forced to give RUE explanations when there is only one character on stage. The character has limited or no interaction, which makes the character’s emotional reactions harder to describe. I call this the Wilson Principle—after Tom Hanks’ character stranded on a desert island in “Cast Away.”

In the film, Hanks is alone on stage for long periods of
time. To avoid RUE and to generate emotions, he fashions a person out of a
washed-up Wilson volleyball. Now he has someone to talk to, interact with and
get emotional over. Take a look at your work. Is your character on stage alone?
Is this the most effective way to introduce him? Try inventing a “Wilson” for
your character to interact with and increase emotional intensity for readers.

List Emotions

Wherever you intro your character, try to learn to weave
emotion with story set-up. By that I mean you can integrate details and
descriptions with emotional reactions to those details. Maybe your character is
torn between loyalty to his family and the outsider girl he’s in love with.
What are his primary emotions? Anxiety, tension (felt both as a state and as a
physical sensation), feeling trapped? Is she angry, depressed, happy, sad? List
the character’s initial emotions (when introduced) and then try mapping out how
that character’s emotions change as the character grows and learns.

In life, we usually don’t make sweeping changes suddenly,
but in increments. Our surface emotions (how we feel right now) might be more
volatile, but our deep-seated beliefs, grudges or hurts often change much more

One way to show yourself a character’s surface and deeper emotions might be to write a letter from the character to you, focusing on the ways the emotional landscape changes in your story. Don’t shy away from negative emotions—they’re often the best source of story tension as well as the best way to get your character moving toward the story’s goals. Every character (or person) should have a complex set of emotions that may even contradict one another. Be sure they’re strong enough for readers to both identify and relate to—emotions that hook them from page one and refuse to let go.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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