Emotions: Let Your Characters Feel

When co-writing with people, I find a lot of people prefer to skim the emotions of a scene—especially the most emotional scenes of the story! They tell me, “The character didn’t want me to dwell on it.” I find that curious, but for me the opposite is true. The characters want to be remembered. They want to make the reader feel their pain for all its worth. They want to make the reader cry or scream out in denial just as much as the author does.

What I have discovered though about those people who withhold emotions from a scene, they are usually very withdrawn individuals in real life, and they’re uncomfortable showing that much emotion. It’s almost as if they don’t want that emotion to be identified with them. Is this wrong? No. A lot of writers are introverts who prefer not to show their emotions, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, there is a distinct difference between the author and the character. The character is not the author. People are not going to read the story and see you in it unless you specifically write yourself into the story.

Why is it so important for us to include authentic emotion in our story? Emotions are our way of connecting with the fictional world. We can’t really experience their adventures or completely relate to them in all their endeavors because we might not be super assassins or dragon-slaying medieval knights or vampires or werewolves or an orphan who’s meant to save the world. Our characters’ stories are often out-of-this-world, and by all rights, their world should be as foreign and strange as any country in this world. However, it’s not that strange. Why? Because we can all relate to the character’s denial when something bad happens, his stress as he tries to decide between two difficult choices, his determination when he finally sets his mind to the task, and his relief when he overcomes all those obstacles as well as any sorrows he might have encountered along the way.

Emotion is a universal language. We can all relate to it. Even if our books are translated into hundreds of different languages that we don’t even understand, we’d still be able to see the emotions on our readers faces as they read. We can relate to their smiles, their frowns, their widened eyes, quickened breath, then sighs of relief. We can laugh with them and cry with them.

If we refuse to let our writing be saturated with emotion in the proper time and place, then we deny our readers the opportunity to express themselves with that emotion. In today’s world, especially in the Western world, openly expressing emotions is frowned upon, but when those emotions aren’t yours but someone else’s (rather a character’s), it’s more acceptable. That’s why we can go to the movies and laugh or cry (though we will try to hide our tears) or scream in denial. When reading a book, outwardly it might appear as though we’re some of the most boring people in the world, but inwardly, we’re on an emotional roller coaster. Sometimes we might sigh or wince or cringe. Other times we might throw the book down or across the room in anger or disgust or disbelief, or we might let out a shout, “No!” or even mutter under our breath, “Don’t do it—don’t! Stupid, stupid, stupid!” Then we look around and realize people are staring—if they’re not plugged into their iPods. At the end of the day (or the book), we feel human because we actually felt emotion rather than going through the mundane day of work, family drama, friends drama, school, and so forth.

This is why it is important to keep emotions in your writing. “But how do I do that? How do I know that I’ve put emotion in? How do I show emotion when you’re supposed to feel it?” There’s no secret formula to this—there never is any secret formula to anything regarding writing. However, let me show you an example. I wrote this piece merely for this blog post. It was the first thing I could think of to demonstrate the difference being restricted in use of emotion versus honing in on the emotion.

She was washing the breakfast dishes when the men came. When she opened the door and saw the military men standing there, she knew why they were here. Her heart began to break before they spoke a word, but soon they left, and she closed the door and slid down to the floor, pulled up her knees and sobbed. Her husband was never coming home.

She scrubbed the breakfast dishes, frustrated that she had left the scrambled eggs on the plate too long, and now the remnant of eggs were caked to the plate. As she scrubbed hard, she knew she was running late and might just have to let the plate soak while she was running her errands today.

The dog barking outside caught her attention, and she lifted her gaze out the kitchen window to see anyone crossing the lawn. Not seeing anyone, she leaned further and looked to the left and saw a military vehicle in her driveway, but she couldn’t see the occupants.

Frowning, she snatched up a towel and began drying her hands as she approached the front door. Through the distorted glass of the door, she saw the silhouette of two men with proper stances, and the sight of them made her heart sink. Her steps slowed, but she pushed herself forward.

Her husband and she often discussed all the ‘what ifs’ if he didn’t come back from fighting. She didn’t want to be caught off guard but rather be prepared, so he informed her of all the different protocols.

This was one of them, and there was only one reason for it.

The doorbell chimed, and she drew in a sharp breath, straightened her posture, and pulled back her shoulders as she folded the towel in her hands and smoothed out her dress. Finally, with shaking hands, she reached for the doorknob. She took another deep breath, and then she opened the door. She had intended to open it all the way but found herself only able to open it slightly—as if to barricade herself from the bad news.

“Mrs. Whitaker?” the older of the two men asked, and Jennet Whitaker nodded. “We’re sorry to inform you—” and that was all Jennet heard. She knew the speech they would give—her husband died in service overseas. They couldn’t give her details, likely didn’t know the details themselves yet, but they apologized and said if there was anything they could do to help, they were there for her.

She tried to smile her thanks, but her throat was too tight with tears. She knew how uncomfortable men got when they saw a woman crying, so she whispered a weak, “Thank you,” then gently closed the door and rested her forehead against the wood of the door as she closed her eyes.

Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, and she couldn’t stop them. She turned her back to the door and slid down to the floor, covering her mouth with her hands as sobs overwhelmed her. She tried to keep quiet in case the men hadn’t left her doorstep yet. She didn’t want them to hear her even though due to the nature of their job, they had seen women break down and cry various ways, but too many people depended on her to be strong. They couldn’t even hear a whisper of her breaking. She needed to be strong.

But alone in her house, on the floor at her front door, she hugged her knees close to her chest, buried her face in her knees, and cried.

Together they were going to change the world, but now he left her alone—again.


The difference here is obvious. The first version is merely a paragraph long, and it is more ‘telling’ than ‘showing’. Yes, a reader with similar experience could relate to it, but most readers want to know how is this specific character going to react to that specific situation. We’re all different, and maybe someone else’s way of coping could be an example or a warning for us.

Not only do drawn-out emotional scenes help us understand our own emotions, but in these scenes we may discover something about the characters that we would never have known otherwise.

Am I saying that all characters should be overly emotional at all times? No. Sometimes the lack of emotion—especially in the face of a crisis—speaks volumes of a character. However, you must acknowledge at one point or another in one way or another each character (the human ones at least) must express themselves emotionally. They can bottle it up for so long and pretend they don’t care. They can seem to be absolutely robotic and without feeling, but there will be something that will slip in under their guard—something they’ve always tried to accept, change, or ignore, but it keeps bothering them.

Sooner or later they will snap. They might lash out in a moment of anger, and that is all it is—a moment, and then it’s passed. Or they might be the kind who must go behind closed, locked doors all alone where no one can hear them, and they might cry out in frustration or hurt, but soon they compose themselves.

The longer they don’t express themselves or release that emotion, the more it builds, and such pent-up emotions do cause a strain on the mind and body of the individual—stress, depression, lack of sleep, lack of motivation, short-tempered, and so forth. This can work to your benefit in the story, but sooner or later the characters should be allowed to expressed themselves emotionally. It doesn’t have to be a huge emotional scene but rather a small private passing moment.

Remember, we read in order to escape and to experience things we could never do in our lifetime, and one way to really connect with your reader is that emotional connection. The emotion is the magic that truly brings simple words on paper to life and makes them memorable.

Also, if you’re an introvert and a very private person who prefers to show as little emotion as possible at all times, just because your characters experience bouts of emotion doesn’t mean your readers are going to see you in the story and judge you. Instead, they are going to be so caught up with the story and everything the characters are going through, they won’t see you at all, so there’s no need to worry about it. Let the characters feel what they feel and let them express themselves in the way that they would. Yes, they’re a part of you, but they’re not you, and there’s a freedom in that.

One comment on “Emotions: Let Your Characters Feel

  1. […] 38: Emotions: Let Your Characters Feel – Emotions are fundamental to human life, to our experiences, and how we react. Due to its great […]

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