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What I have discovered though about those people who withhold emotions from a scene, they are usually very withdrawn individuals in real life, and they’re uncomfortable showing that much emotion.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.


Describing Your Characters upon Introduction

In a sense, there is a ‘camera’ in your story which sets the pace of how the scene unfolds. Description immediately slows down the pace, and too much description makes it almost slow motion. It’s not important to record every detail in order for the readers to get a clear image of the character in their head. Let them imagine whom they will—just as long as the character’s personality doesn’t change. The personality is what shines through and what should remain consistent regardless of how others imagine their appearance.

Once I let someone read a chapter of a story of mine, and she gave me this feedback:

Character development – I very much enjoyed how you are developing your characters. Nothing annoys me more when a writer says here is my character, this is what they look like, this is their temperament within the first couple of paragraphs without giving their character a chance to develop and grow. I dislike this “in your face” approach and prefer to learn about the character as the book develops, so I like your approach to your characters.

Then she sent me a sample of her story. What amazed me was how this writer was acutely aware of terrible introductions of characters yet could not write without falling into the same problem. After exchanging a few emails, I came to learn that she knew she had been writing the kind of writing she didn’t like to read, but she didn’t know what else to do. So I gave her some advice.

The characters’ looks are not important. It is their personality and behavior that are fundamental to the story. Once I wrote an entire book, and I imagined the actors who would play the characters if it became a movie. However, I didn’t try to describe the actors’ looks. I just went along with the story, developing the character as I went. The most remarkable feedback I got from a reader was, “Have you ever watched the TV series Merlin? Your character reminds me of Morgana.” I had to laugh because that was exactly whom I imagined when I wrote that character though there were some differences.

The problem is that the brain is much quicker than the eye, but when reading our eyes must first read the words in order for our brains to comprehend them. If the pace has slowed down, then our brain doesn’t see the story unfold as quickly. The only way to prevent this is to use motion description, which I’ve already discussed in a previous post, here: Movement in Description. 

This is an example of what dragged-out description feels like to a reader. Once I was in the kitchen baking when my mom came in and started reading to me a section out of a Sherlock Holmes story. In it, Sherlock and Watson walk down a corridor at a brisk pace, and suddenly they turn a corner, and someone is standing in the middle of the hall waiting for them. The whole story stops to describe the character entirely! To me, I imagined it as a movie. They’re walking down a hallway at a swift pace, turn the corner, and then S-L-O-W motion as they take in the sight of this new character from head to toe. It was like a L’Oreal commercial where the women have their hair flying in the wind in slow motion…except, this new character was a guy—a tough, hardened man. As you can imagine, because the pace slowed down to take the time to describe him, my mental image of him was completely ruined. I had to laugh because I couldn’t get the Sherlock Holmes L’Oreal commercial I envisioned out of my head. This is one example of how films and television have influenced our imagination.

There are a lot of Sherlock films and TV shows, and we know Sherlock doesn’t take THAT much time to observe a character. He’s very quick about it. Just as Sherlock used deductive reasoning, we must use deductive writing in our stories when introducing characters and setting. Always keep the story moving.

“So if we’re not supposed to give a described snapshot of our character upon introduction, what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to show our characters?” Imagine your character and the first thing you’d notice about them in person. Is this character tall? Perhaps he has striking eye color  you’ve never seen before. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with the character’s look, but rather the aura he presents is regal and noble or flamboyant and careless. Whichever way he is will be evident in the way he carries himself, and this has a lot to do with body language and can be shown over a course of time instead of a pause in the story to describe the character. Here are examples of both styles of writing:

Example 1: Standing at 6’2, Skelton wore a black trench coat, black clothes, and black boots. His hair was a shocking blonde, and his eyes were stunning blue while he smiled with mischief. High cheek bones, sharp nose, and square jaw made him all the more striking to look at, but there was something fun and roguish about him.

Example 2: Skelton flung the doors open and smirked when everyone flinched at the sound of the door slamming against the wall, but he sauntered in with confidence. “Well, well, well! Looks like you’re having a party! And no one thought to invite me?” He pressed a hand to his chest as he pursed his lips into a pout then clicked his tongue and wagged his head–dropping his hand and the pout as he smirked again. “Not to worry! I’ll just make myself at home!” Marching around the length of the table, he came to the head of it and plopped himself down in the chair then kicked his boots up onto the table as he leaned back in the chair and intertwined his hands over his chest. “So, peoples, where are we? What’s on the agenda?” Everyone glared at him.

In one version, we are merely told what he looks like and hinted at how he behaves. In the second version, we don’t need to be told anything. We get his personality right away. Yes, we don’t know the color of his hair or his eye color or the exact shape of his face, but is more important? Always keep in mind what is most important to your story.

“Are there ever any exceptions?” Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. It merely takes an exceptionally good writer to know when and how and why exactly to break the rules.

Author/Character Relationship

Last week we discussed author-based characters, but let’s focus on the relationship characters have with their authors. These are people in our heads who want their story told so badly, and we are their own means to be made known unto the world. It’s a hefty task, if you think about it. But when it comes to characters, there are two kinds of authors. There are those authors who hear their characters’ voices in their head, can see them clearly, communicates with them often, and has little say in what they will and will not do. And then there are those authors who don’t have that relationship with their characters. Let’s break this down a bit more.

Interactive Authors are those interact with their characters. To them, their characters are very real people, and the rest of the world is very unfortunate not to see or have a chance to communicate with them. That’s why these authors write. The characters are so vivid and strong and real, their story must be told. This makes writing fun and enjoyable, but it also runs the risk of making it very difficult.

Fleshed-out characters are those who have a say on everything you want them to do. Not only that, but they’ll also whisper in your ear a profound twist at the worst (or best) of timing, and all you can do is sit there and stare stunned because suddenly everything makes sense—suddenly the character has a new layer of depth to them you had never imagined. However, as I mentioned, if the character doesn’t want to do something, it won’t.

Characters have a secret superpower—the ability to curse the writer with Writer’s Block. If you try to force the character to do something, he will go kicking and screaming all along the way, or he might fall silent and completely close off and glare at you. Without the open interaction with the character, you will find your imagination falls short, and it will run dry. When that happens, you flounder about for ideas, explanations, something—anything! And the character won’t talk to you until you’re ready to listen. So either you’ll throw the story away and never finish it, or you’ll knuckle down, back up, and figure out where the problems began while keeping an open mind toward the characters. You will know when you’re getting close to the problem. There is a game children play where one of them hides something, and the others have to find it, and if they’re getting closer to the item, the child says, “Hot,” but if they’re getting further from it, he says, “Cold.” The same idea applies here. As you get closer to the problem, the character will hint, “Hot,” but if you drift further from it, the character will become silent again. Once you’ve landed on the problem, the character will be like, “FINALLY! Now, can I tell you what I want to do rather than doing what you wanted me to do?” Sometimes it wastes words and time doing this, but you always learn something.

Now there are also Static Authors. These authors don’t have such communication with their characters. I’m going to be honest, I don’t understand how an author can ‘not’ have that interaction with their characters, but I have run across people who look at me weird and ask, “Your characters actually talk to you?” to which I want to respond, “Your characters don’t?” However, every author has their own style. I have found though while listening to Static Authors explain their story and what problems they have encountered, their stories are very author-controlled. The author wants this story to turn out this way and have his character do or say this or that, and there is very little room for negotiation from anybody outside the author (friends or family) or even inside the author’s mind (characters). With Static Authors, the characters have little to no voice because they realize their writer won’t listen to them.

As an Interactive Author, sometimes the characters of Static Authors talk to me because their own authors won’t listen to them. It makes for awkward conversations at times when a Static Author comes to me to brainstorm a problem they’ve encountered, and along the way I hear like the nagging voice of a character that isn’t even my own, so I ask the author, “Have you tried talking to your character?” I always encourage the author to listen to the character and communicate with them, because that resolves problems the quickest. I can’t always be around being the meditator between author and character, and it shouldn’t be that way.

Some writers are very mechanical and have to have anything and everything figured out about their characters before they even begin a story. This can be both good and bad. Good—because it helps you thoroughly think out your story and develop the characters and storyline. However, it can be bad because no matter how much you prepare ahead of time, the character and/or story may simply not want to go that way, and if you try to force the issue, you run the risk of Writer’s Block. So, no matter your approach to writing, always keep an open mind.

So, is it weird to communicate with people that don’t even exist? Does this borderline insanity? For people who cannot discern the line between reality and fantasy, then yes—it does borderline insanity, but for the most part, authors are acutely aware of the line. They love to cross it back and forth all the time, but they never blur the actual line.

“If I’m a Static Author, is that all I’ll ever be?” or likewise, “If I’m an Interactive Author, is that all I’ll ever be?” No. The kind of author you are can change over the course of your life depending on what you are encountering in real life and how you respond to it. If you are going through a difficult time where everything seems to be out of your control, you might switch from being an Interactive Author to a Static Author because you want one realm of your life to be under your control—no arguments. Static Authors, you might decide one day to let loose and just have fun with writing and not be concerned with whether or not it is publishable work. And you can always revert back to the kind of author you’re most comfortable with. Neither of them are wrong, and there are things both kinds of authors can learn from each other.

So what kind of author are you?


Author-Based Characters

Young writers (‘young’ can mean age or inexperienced) get an idea and think, “It would be so cool if I could do that.” They proceed to daydream, form a story, and might finally attempt to write the story. This results in an author-based character.

An author-based character doesn’t have to be a writer in the story. It doesn’t have to be in present day or do anything the author does. The author could be a stay-at-home mom who writes a spy thriller. The way you can identify an author-based character is the voice of the character, the actions of the character, and the lack of real depth in the character.

Author-based characters come into existence because the author places himself into the situation and writes how he would respond if he ever had run from the CIA, save the world with some new superpower, or travel back in time. This is where all the daydreams and fantasies come to life, and you’re able to do what you could never do in real life.

These characters are often found in fan fiction because the author gets the idea for the story by thinking, “Now, if I could have been in that movie/book, what would I have done? What would happen?” Author-based characters have the tendency to become Mary-Sue or Gary Stu–that is to say the ‘perfect’ characters. To the author, these characters are charming and beautiful, but they’re absolutely annoying and unrealistic to the readers.

Once a writer asked me to read the first novel he ever wrote because he wanted to publish it. I met his female protagonist, and I had to put his book down. Everyone in the story loved that character. They crowded around to reach out to her just to get a brief touch of her. They said she was an angel, and she was described as beautiful.

This, in and of itself, would be all right if the twist had been that on the inside she was dark, but the worst part was this character was absolutely innocent, ignorant, but knew anything about everything. There was nothing wrong with her, nothing different, no shades of gray, or depth. Have you ever met someone who just seemed so perfect that it’s annoying? The same goes for stories.

Needless to say, I couldn’t finish reading that story. I had to give him credit though because it was his first novel, and he was writing a female character. His downfall came in being too careful. He didn’t want to insult his female readers by making his female character unlikable in any way whatsoever, but there is a crime in being too careful. Every character has a conflict. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

But I didn’t mean to write a Mary Sue! What am I supposed to do?” Think back and reconsider why you’re writing the story in the first place. Yes, Mary Sues have their proper place in writing, but they’re never the main character. They’re often used in parody.

If there’s even the slightest chance of me accidentally writing a Mary Sue, I don’t want to write.” That’s your choice, but if you’re a writer, you won’t be able to not write. No one said writing was easy. Characters are only one aspect of writing, and you must master them before you can think about publishing your work.

This is why the Playground Experience is important! During the Playground Experience you can play around with all sorts of characters, tear them apart, piece them back together, find out what makes them tick, and talk with them–argue with them. You’re going to disagree with your characters. They’re going to storm away and slam doors in your head on the way out, but they’ll always come back because you are the only means they have to get their story told. Like us, they want their story known to the world. The Playground Experience is the proper place to experiment. Mary Sues are tolerated in fan fiction because it is an unspoken agreement among fan fic authors and readers that fan fiction is merely a playground to learn the craft.

Writers have the most selfless people in the world because even though they write the story, imagine the characters and the setting, they have no say in what actually happens. They may want something to happen, but in the end, it’s all up to the characters.

Every writer must know and understand their characters and realize they are not their characters, and their characters are not them. This understanding comes with practice, and over the course of many years, you—as the author—will develop how you connect with your characters and how you communicate your characters to the world.

Quick Tip: If you think your character is an author-based character, change the gender of your character. Author-based characters are the same gender as the author, so if you change the gender, you automatically create a distance between that character and you.