Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sunday Musings: The Emotional

Happy Sunday.

Think back to your favourite character, why is this character a favourite? What makes her/him alive for you?

A writer has to make each character real to the story being told and one of the characteristics needed is emotion. There needs to be an emotional connection, feel to the fictional being. If it's missing the hero or heroine, let alone any other character, falls flat.

But, let's see what the Musers have to say:

Anyone interested in communications has probably heard of Albert Mehrabian, currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, who posited a theory about the emotional content of communication way back in the 1960s. He suggested feelings and attitudes are communicated:

7% the words that are spoken;

38% in the way that the words are said (tone, volume, pitch, speed)

55% facial expression (non-verbal communication)

I fear that much “words only” electronic communication these days through texts, and emails and so on, rather neutralises the emotional content that we get from body language and tone of voice etc.

As authors we to try and put across these non-verbally expressed feelings in the written word. Creating consistent characters in the words they use, and how they look and sound is an important part of making them feel like real and separate individuals to the reader.

Here’s an attempt to do so:

“Mrs Thurston. Good afternoon. I hadn’t realised you lived here. Had I known, I would have explained first, before giving you the official letter.”

“Official letter?” She stared for a moment at the envelope in her hand and then tore it open. It took only a moment for her to understand. “You can’t…you can’t do that. I live here. I’ve nowhere else to go.”

She rushed into the house, dropped the letter on the table, and fetched the gun from the cupboard in the corner. Within seconds she was pointing it at his chest.

“Get off my land…now!” No one moved. What could she do? She didn’t actually want to fire the gun…nor could she remember if it was even loaded. Mr Forsyth didn’t seem concerned. He slowly dismounted, told the two soldiers with him to put up their weapons, and stepped up onto the veranda.

“Come now, Mrs Thurston, there’s no need for anyone to be hurt.” He lifted the barrel of the gun and took it from her, put a hand under her elbow, and steered her back into the house, kicking the outer door closed behind them.

(from “The Baronet’s Daughter” when the army vet serves a requisition order)

Drama is largely about emotions. A rock falling is of no consequence. A falling toward a child playing on the slope below is a dramatic situation. It's how we feel about that fact that makes us care. We care about a child and that makes the path the rock takes dramatic. We demand to know what happens next (keep reading to find out, because this is a cliffhanger opening).

Our emotions provide a way for us to respond to situations quickly—before we have time to think rationally, and these responses are learned. They derive from our personal history and experiences with similar situations. Our emotions, in turn, partially dictate what we do next, or at least what our instinct tells us to do. And every person is unique--different.

Storytelling is, by its nature, a simplification of real life. Writers eliminate the unnecessary, or the story would be interminable, and do their best to capture the essence of what makes us tick, or might make us tick, and that ain't easy. Showing the emotional response of a character requires understanding them intimately--their inner nature—their dreams and fears. Emotions let us respond quickly and showing those responses in a believable way lets us quickly grasp a character. And since stories throw characters into new and challenging situations, some physical, some mental, a story provides great opportunities to do that.

For instance, imagine standing at the edge of a cliff, looking down into an abyss. It might terrify you or exhilarate you and someone watching will learn things about you. Not that only a weak person is terrified, because a physical condition, vertigo, which can be caused by a variety of physical and mental factors can easily be the reason (which is useful for the author to know).

When an author shows an emotional response, it can be a wonderful foreshadowing of things to come. When we know the hero fears heights, we can create dramatic questions--Will the hero overcome his fear of heights and rescue his one true love who is tied on the cliff? Will she overcome her fear of confined spaces and rescue her lover trapped in a cave?

Emotional response is the heart and soul of dramatic tension. And so you can rest easily... the hero and heroine of our story pulled the child away before the rock struck her, and they lived happily until the child reached puberty. But that's another story and another bag of emotions.

The emotions of characters keep readers reading our books, so it is very important to emphasize them and to have the emotional states of each character be separate from the others. In my first book it was in the point of view of Carolyn Samuels, the main character. She was an emotional mess at the beginning of the story and I showed that in her actions and in her thoughts. The reader saw her thoughts as well as her actions and there were flashbacks to show why she was in this state. As the book went on her emotions changed and each time they did, Carolyn experienced either a time when she could relate her thoughts to the reader or an experience that showed how she felt.

Keeping the emotional states of Carolyn and Jennifer separate was tricky, because it was first person in Carolyn’s voice. However, there were many times when Carolyn was observing Jennifer and the reader could see how she felt. Jennifer at times poured out her heart to Carolyn and you could see her emotional state was totally different from Carolyn’s. The two girls existed in a parallel universe with each one’s emotions separate and yet they were able to communicate with each other. Everyone could see how different these girls were.

In my second novel, Who Is Jennifer Taylor? (not yet published) I delve into the emotional state of Jennifer’s mother and her best friend Maura and you can see how different all of these emotional states are. Mrs. Taylor’s emotional state is showed by how she deals with her life around Jennifer and her discussions with her therapist with Jennifer. Also the therapist tells Jennifer how her mother is feeling. With Maura, Jennifer must dig into Maura’s life in conversation so Maura will tell her how she feels.

I think when writing in first person in order to show the emotional states of the characters who are not speaking you need to have scenes where these characters show you how they feel. It is not enough to have the main character talk about the other’s emotions. You have to see them in their actions and judge for yourself as the reader how these characters are feeling. It is not enough just to show the main character’s emotions. It is important to show how the people around the main character are feeling so you have a deeper story.

Whether I'm reading, or writing, the emotional response of characters is very important to me. When I read a book, I tend to skip over large portions of descriptive text but I will always read how characters feel and how they interact. I sometimes find when I am writing that I don't include sufficient description and rather, I have focused on the characters. I am particularly interested in dialogue where characters express their emotions and I try to make conversations as realistic as possible, so the reader can 'eavesdrop' and understand the characters' relationship.

When I am reading a book, or watching a film or program, I notice that each character can be, and often is, recognized by his or her own “personality”…the emotional part of us.  One of the best examples of this is the tale of The Three Little Pigs.

Just as people are all different, yet have a domineering personality trait, our written characters need to be, also.  Often speech tags are not needed because we can tell which character is speaking by his or her “voice,” or response to what is taking place.  It is the emotional differences in the way our characters see things that makes them interesting and leads to the conflict that makes a story.

When writing in the third person there are numerous ways to show a character's emotional state. Through body language observed by another protagonist, through thoughts, actions both good and bad, the state of relationships, reactions to conflict and problems as well as through dialogue. The author needs to make the reader care about the character and share his or her joys and sorrow.

Emotion is obviously important.  Critical.  No character can be human without them. No human can be human without them, either.  Being who they are, my characters are restrained in their display of emotions.  I indicate them by a change or catch in voice, a look, a touch.  When they do reveal more, it is a key moment.  Two examples from the closing chapter of SURVIVOR:

When Gavin returns to his home following his release from the hospital, crushed by the realization that he will never be able to resume his work as an explorer, he sees his enormous aquarium has been moved there.  He says in a muffled tone, "I cannot believe that anyone would go to this much trouble for the broken-down wreck of what had once been a man.” Kathleen's answering fury died as it was born when she saw that the cheek visible to her was wet.

A little later when she declares her love for him, she tells him, "You've learned your heart's wish.  I knew mine already, but seeing you lying there, seemingly lost to me forever, firmed it into titanone.  Doctors fight for their patients, Gavin.  They don't cry over them, not the way I did."

Dear reader, thank you again for joining us and we’d love to hear from you. Keep smiling and have a fun week. Never stop believing. See you next Sunday…nothing better than being cozy in bed with some Musings.

If you have a question or comment you’d like us to muse upon, do not hesitate to contact me Christine Steeves-Speakman  at

1 comment:

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Very good examples. It's that old "show" don't "tell." When the author shows the characters feelings, the reader can relate to the character's happiness, anger, puzzlement, etc. and will care what happens to the character.
Have a great week.