“For sale: baby shoes, never used.”* That gets an immediate reaction from me. It implies sadness, loss, grief in only six words. We want our readers to react emotionally to our writing as well. But where do we start?
With our own feelings.
Using Your Emotions
Our days are swayed by our moods. Emotions are like a filter, painting the world with color. Those in love are often described as looking through rose-colored glasses. But life gives us crap-colored glasses too. The red of anger, blackness of despair—clichés surround these for a reason (not that we want to use clichés directly). But we must write the truth of what characters feel.
“When people act out of fear, or anxiety, defensiveness, or even out of love or desire, they do things differently than they would if they were feeling centered and rational.” – Angela Ackerman
When something has made me very happy, it’s as if the sun has come out brightening a gray day. Colors are more intense. I’m much more likely to notice nature’s beauty. But it’s not just what I see that is affected. Good scents and tastes are stronger. Happiness gives me more energy, a positive outlook on life, and resistance to negativity. I react differently to the world around me. I’m less irritable. Less aware of my aches and pains. And the opposite is true when I’m down. Just as my life has ups and downs between positive and negative emotions—often daily—my characters need to have the full range of emotions to be realistic.
Can we reproduce our emotions in characters? Yes. Here’s one practical process: on a retreat, the leader had us pair up, stand face-to-face looking each other in the eyes, and think of “a secret we’d never told anyone.” The tension in the room grew. And grew. When we were almost at a bursting point, she told us to take that feeling and write up the scenario she shared with us. Being “worked up” made it easier to put feelings of stress into my writing in a natural way. Similarly, focusing on what we think, feel, do, and say when under the influence of a specific emotion can help us guide a character through the same emotion.
Let’s look at this character:
Rose awoke to birds chirping about a beautiful sun-filled morning. Today’s the day! She leaped out of bed and grabbed her phone. Was his flight on time? Thank God, yes. Arriving in three hours and two minutes at 9:30 a.m. So little time after being apart for six long months. Rose raced through the shower, then tried on three outfits before remembering how much he loved her yellow dress. Her fingers trembled as she smoothed the skirt of the sundress over her freckled legs. She checked the clock. 6:46. Had time stopped? No, her phone said the same.
What emotions do you see? I was going for excitement and anticipation.
I used the tool of sunshine as a background for Rose’s emotions. Weather can help us reinforce the desired mood of a character. Recently, I heard author Cindy Baldwin talk about how she mentioned heat and drought whenever her character Della was overwhelmed in her middle grade novel Where the Watermelons Grow.
Using Your Beliefs and Values
And then there’s our beliefs and values. Paul Wanaye Wamimbi said, “The beliefs that we hold are an important part of our identity. They may be religious, cultural, or moral.” Our writing will unintentionally or intentionally show our values and beliefs through our characters. Most of L. E. Modesitt Jr.’s main characters are (or become) hardworking people—if you look at the over seventy novels he has published, you’ll see he’s very hardworking himself. I don’t think curse words are a necessary part of language, so it’s rare for me to use any. I can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke, so that won’t be used positively in my stories.
Do you remember the old movie It’s a Wonderful Life? George Bailey has integrity and does what he can to keep the bank going. Yet, later he’s so desperate he prepares to commit suicide because he’s “worth more dead than alive.” What is your character willing to die for?
George’s integrity is a core value. My dislike of smoking and cursing are not, and I show that by enjoying friends who do both. Likewise, your characters will have central and casual beliefs and values.
Characters Act on Their Beliefs
We act on our beliefs, from the simple act of flipping a light switch to moral dilemmas. What do we do when something compromises our beliefs? Stand firm? Lose the job? Give in to the physical situation and struggle internally? We can use these issues to raise the stakes for our characters.
“Someone who believes ‘all life is precious’ will not act the same way when they run over a fox as someone who believes ‘life is survival of the fittest (fastest/strongest).’” – Clare Merle
Our character’s beliefs can provide motivation and strength. Conversely, some beliefs will make him vulnerable.
“When a character has to choose between two of their values (either money OR love, responsibility OR freedom, etc.), it can push their limits and force them to grow and change.” – Emilie V. Scarlet
Have your beliefs ever caused conflict between you and another person? Of course. Usually with ones where you both feel strongly. Likewise, having contrasting values between two characters can create conflict and tension.
Character beliefs can draw readers in.
“Taking a stand for what’s right is without question one of the greatest emotional tools available. Moral stance and struggles have an emotional power, and it’s important that a story generate such moments and achieve that power. All characters can rise above their selfishness, for a moment, to become gracious, insightful, generous or self-sacrificing.” – Donald Maass
When we give our characters emotions and values, we’re giving our readers something to relate to which is much more important than describing their physical attributes.
SM Ford writes fiction and nonfiction. When she was thirteen, Sue got hooked on Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense books. Sue has been an eclectic reader as long as she can remember. She loves assisting other writers on their journeys and is a writing teacher, speaker, mentor, and blogger about writing.