I am not an emotional storyteller. I like action and adventure. I like spaceship skirmishes and epic battles on fantastic plains of existence. I like Jedi light saber duels and Jackie Chan Kung Fu fights. Ask me to be emotional, and I cringe. But there’s no escaping the fact that the skirmishes and battles and duels and Kung Fu wouldn’t mean anything if there wasn’t emotion driving it.
If I didn’t care that Luke Skywalker needed to defeat Darth Vader (his father) to show him that he still had good inside him, the duel between them would just be two guys in weird costumes flailing around with glowing sticks. If I didn’t care that Aragorn was defending Minas Tirith as its rightful king returning to the throne after exile, the Battle of Pelennor Field wouldn’t be gripping at all; it would just be long.
So how do you effectively convey emotion in characters, especially when you are not an emotional person to begin with?
I attended a phenomenal writing workshop in June of this year. I plan to go back next year as I’ve never had such a good time while learning so much simultaneously. But one of the general sessions, led by Angela Hunt, was all about evoking emotions. So I thought I might share some of what I learned in that session.
One of her suggestions in evoking emotion is to tap into emotions your readers have already felt.
One thing about emotions is that they’re universal. Everyone feels, even Star Trek’s Vulcans if truth be told. So that is a reassuring thing to realize—all of your readers have felt sad or happy or alone or abandoned or disappointed or guilty or uncertain. Everyone has felt those things, so everyone can identify with them.
And the best way to communicate those emotions in writing is to draw from your own experience.
If you’re writing anger, think of the time you’ve felt the angriest in your life.
If you’re writing hurt, think of the time you’ve been in the most heart wrenching pain.
If you’re writing about being sick, think of the time you’ve been ill enough that you want to die.
And if you don’t have experience with these emotions, find someone who has.
Another method of dealing with emotion is the old “Show Don’t Tell” standby. You can have a character say, “I love you! I love you!” until he or she is blue in the face, but if that character’s actions don’t reflect that emotion, your readers won’t believe it’s actually true.
Let’s face it. If you love someone, you do things for them. You buy them chocolates. You rub their feet or their shoulders after a long day at work. You do the dishes for them. You take out the trash.
Alternately, if you hate someone, you avoid them. Or you throw rocks at them. Or you tell lies about them.
Conveying emotion in writing demands action because describing the emotion itself with mere words is impossible. You have to use metaphors. And some metaphoric language is great—but the best way to demonstrate what a character is feeling is to show us what that character is doing.
There’s a lot more to write, a lot more hints and tips that I picked up which I will continue in Part 2 if I get a spare moment.
But this one was probably the most relevant. Emotion requires action. So describe the action, and you’ll have a better chance of effectively conveying what your character is feeling.