Writing character emotions in a believable and engaging manner can be difficult. And that’s putting it mildly.
Writing character emotions in a believable and engaging manner… when you’re a novice or indie author… who doesn’t have an editor to sprinkle magic all over your manuscript…
That can be downright overwhelming. Even disastrous.
In part, that’s because emotions are one of those areas of creative writing that differs from real life. It’s kind of like with writing out dialogue vs. actually speaking out loud.
In reality, our speech isn’t perfectly smooth and our verbal presentations aren’t entirely coherent.
We start and stop, hem and haw, pause and repeat ourselves countless times per day. Unless you’re a monk living in isolation. In that case, I suppose you can’t be accused of ineloquence.
If you’re not a monk living in isolation though, then you probably don’t always make sense with what you say and how you say it. It’s just part and parcel of being human... which comes our really annoying in writing.
The same holds true of emotional roller coasters. Some of us experience them more than others, of course, but just about everyone can recall a time when they went from sad to furious to sad, back to furious again.
We don’t always know how to process our actual feelings, and so they come out in a hodgepodge or unstable mess.
That is, again, in real life. It’s a much different story when writing character emotions in a novel-to-be.
Writing Character Emotions – the Wrong Way
Let’s consider an all-too common illustration of writing character emotions done wrong.
For the record, this is a completely made-up excerpt. But it’s based on far too many actual published examples I’ve read over the years.
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” I declared hotly. “You’d better watch what you’re saying to me.” “Or what?” he demanded. “Are you going to hit me again, Tori? Is that what you’re going to do?” That caught me by surprise, and a flood of remorse poured over me. He’d never mentioned the occasional bout of abuse – abuse. What a harsh word. Is it really abuse when a woman hits a man? – I’d inflicted on him when he just wouldn’t listen. But hearing him label it like that swept the anger away. How I was going to respond in that moment, I didn’t know. He continued in the face of my silence. “What happened to the girl I fell in love with?” “Don’t call me a girl!” I shouted. “I’m a grown woman, you moron. And I was when we met three years ago too!” Zach buried his face in his hands. “What’s wrong with you, Tori? Seriously? You know that’s not how I meant it.” Suddenly, I was too tired for words. “This needs to end.”
That’s 176 words there that contain not one but three extreme emotional switches. Unless they’re set in very specific, very well thought-out literary circumstances, three extreme emotional switches in 176 words is at least two too many.
(For the record, that’s not the only mistake made in that excerpt. Click here to see why creative writers should almost never use the word “suddenly.”)
In real life, that might very well play out. But in writing, it’s going to leave seasoned readers with the writing equivalent of whiplash. Which is something you should rarely strive for.
Writing Character Emotions – the Right Way
When writing character emotions the right way, authors and authors-to-be pick an emotion or set of emotions. Then they stick with them until the scene or segment is finished.
Oh, they might mention another feeling here or there, but in a fleeting fashion. They understand there has to be some logical, followable, non-dizzying order to the storyline, emotions and all.
Otherwise, readers’ attention can drift away with thoughts like, “Wait. Wasn’t she just mad a second ago?” or “I wish she’d just pick a focus and stick with it already.”
That’s why they’re much more likely to write something like this:
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” I declared hotly. “You’d better watch yourself.” “Or what?” He demanded. “Are you going to hit me again? Is that what you’re going to do?” That surprised me, but I pushed the tingle of remorse away. He’d never blatantly mentioned my outbursts before, and I had no intention of discussing it now that he’d discovered his spine. “You’re not worth it,” I sneered. “You never have been, and you never will be.” His face twisted in pain, but he didn’t lose a single bit of the vitriol he’d finally decided to express. “What happened to the girl I fell in love with?” “Don’t call me a girl!” I shouted. “I’m a grown woman, you moron. And I was when we met three years ago too!” Zach threw his hands in the air. “What’s wrong with you, Tori? Seriously? You know that’s not how I meant it.” That’s when the phone rang, giving him the out I knew he’d been craving. The coward. Turning toward the phone, he shook his head. “This needs to end.”
Writing character emotions out can trend toward the dramatic. It can be evocative or passionate or any other intense adjective out there.
But whatever you do, make it sound like it makes sense in writing. Not just in reality.