Writing Character Emotions

For the last few posts we’ve been discussing characters, their
emotions and how they play into the overall story as well as the reader’s
reactions. A reader today asks, “But how can I write those emotions?”

Writing Tip for Today: Talking about the underpinnings of
story is good, but as you write your scenes, you’ll need some specific
techniques to bring these ideas to life.

Emo Don’ts

Most new writers learn that “ly” words are not our friends. I’m not that strict about it, but character emotions are one area where using adverbs (ly words) is usually the easy way out—and therefore ineffective. “She said angrily,” not only wastes words, it doesn’t give much information. Naming the emotion also keeps readers pinned to a surface, shallow experience. Writing “She was so angry” gives readers the general impression but offers little insight into the character.

Similarly, describing the physical reaction to an emotion brings
the camera closer (readers can experience the emotion). If your character
clenches her fists, you get the idea that she isn’t a happy camper. Yet
emotions contain subtext, and there are many degrees and nuances of emotions
that these physical descriptions may not pinpoint.

An “ly” word or physical reaction here or there isn’t going to sink your scene. Yet readers tire of jaws dropping, teeth gnashing or eyes popping. After a while, the surface naming (He was mad) or the body reactions can seem cartoonish and shallow. Use these methods as sparingly as you can.

Emotional Depth

If writers are to avoid shallow interpretations of emotion,
what is a good way to express them? Start by understanding your character’s
background. How your character responds to the goals and obstacles you set
before her depends on what has happened to her up to that point. Ask not only
what her goals are, but what they mean to her in terms of what she’s already
lived through.

Consider this passage from Where the Crawdads Sing by
Delia Owens, where Kya, a young girl who’s been deserted by her family, is desperate
for their return:

Kya couldn’t remember how to pray. Was it how you held
your hands or how hard you squinted your eyes that mattered?  Maybe if I pray, Ma and Jodie will come home.
Even with all the shouting and fussing, that life was better than this

We immediately feel the empty longing of abandonment. Most
of us have experienced this sense of loss at one time or another but notice
that Owens neither names (feeling sad) nor describes (tears) her feelings.
Instead we enter Kya’s mind—her world—as she deals with what has happened to
her in a childlike way.

What Does it Mean?

One prominent theme of Crawdads is dealing with loss and
abandonment: How do you carry on where everyone deserts you? As Owens shows us,
Kya’s emotions are not simple or surface. The writer paints a portrait of an
intriguing yet complex person who is neither all good or all bad.

I would argue that everything Kya does after losing her family is influenced by that loss. This is why taking the time to unwind your character’s history will inform your character’s present and future. As I’ve previously mentioned, Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and Wired for Story both contain great hints and actual exercises to help you gain that vital knowledge.

When you think about writing your character’s emotions, try
to uncover not only what that person thinks, but how the character thinks. A
word about interior dialogue—stuff the character says inside her head. Be
sparing with this technique, for like naming and describing, it begins to feel
forced to read all those italics. Instead, work your character’s biases,
attitudes, misbeliefs and truths into the narrative of every scene you write.

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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