Monday, November 26, 2007

Emotions and the Reader - Connecting and Showing

Two things about emotions in fiction are they most connect with the reader, and to do that , they must be shown. As I wrote in an earlier blog, emotions are vital to creating 3-dimensional characters. Without emotions they are stick figures—flat and unbelievable like a cartoon. As writers you want your characters to fill the readers head and heart. You do this with emotion.

Here are some steps to help you create believable characters that connect:

1. Emotions are consistent. This means if a person has a fear of something or behaves in a certain way, he will continue to behave this way or have this fear until he is challenged to grow and change. This takes time. If you had a fear of heights or a fear of being in the dark, this didn’t change overnight. You had to learn to overcome the fear in small steps. So our character’s must do the same. If your character is cranky in the morning, he’ll be the same way to everyone, even though he tries to control it with his boss or the heroine in a romance, but the crankiness will show. He’ll have to make amends for this or cover it in some way. Only through growth will a character change and that changes over time.

2. Emotions must connect with the reader so this is why a realistic problem and a more common difficult situation will connect with your audience because they’ve been there. They’ve felt that same emotion or they know someone who has. Try to build the character's problems with growing emotion. As the reader gets to know the characters, she will feel more and more connect with the characters in your story. This is why it is best to hold off the most dramatic problems until your reader has established a relationship with your characters. This is the same reason I advised you to keep backstory out of the first pages. At this point, the reader doesn’t care about the character, but once she does, she will feel the woman’s pain as she describes a jarring rejection from her husband or a group of woman laughing at her for her inappropriate dress at a socal event.

3. Emotions must be felt, first by you and then by your reader. If the emotion you’re putting into your novel doesn’t pull at your heart, if it doesn’t bring tears to your eyes or make you laugh, then you’re doing something wrong. Emotions are felt not just witnessed. They affect our bodies, our reactions, or responses. When you write an emotion, it will be far more realistic if you experience that emotion at the same time. Work toward making the feelings of your characters emotions that you’ve felt and drag them out of your own being so you can put them on the page in a realistic way.

4. Emotions must be shown. We cannot tell an emotion and make it dramatic. He was angry doesn’t do it. We want to see his anger in every possible way we can. Remember that emotions are complex as well, so you will show a mix of sensations and reactions as you bring emotions to life by showing them. Here’s an example of the difference:

Telling: She felt hurt.

Showing: Tears filled her eyes, and she brushed them away wanting to rid herself of them, but her futile action only produced more tears. This time she buried her fists into her eye sockets and pressed the moisture back inside.

If you recall, I talked about emotions being a blend of feelings, so hurt must be broken into pieces, probably a blend of anger and sadness. We can see this response in her jerky motions of brushing the tears from her eyes wanting to get rid of them and then pushing her fists into her eye sockets to force the outward emotion away. We know she’s sad because of the tears, but it’s almost a kind of resentment too, not wanting to admit that this situation hurt her enough to bring her to tears.

You have to ask yourself, which is most effect. The single sentence—she felt hurt—or the descriptive passages that shows her reaction. I think you’d agree it’s the latter choice.

The showing and telling technique is complex and one of the hardest to learn. I will cover that at another time in this blog.

Next I’ll talk about five ways we can show emotion in our novels. Don’t forget if you have questions, please email me privately or put them in the comments. I’ll be pleased to blog on any writing topic you’d like. I hope to cover all of the major techniques of writing fiction eventually, and you will have all of that in much more depth along with examples from well-known Christian authors if you purchase my book from Writers Digest, Writing the Christian Romance coming out at the end of December. Although the focus is romance, the techniques are very much the same for all genre. You can pre-order at Just click on the link.

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