Character emotion is a tricky thing. Not enough and readers won’t invest; too much and you lose realism. I gave a tendency toward the former – emotionally distant characters that create emotionally distant readers (especially in long works). It’s something I’ve been looking at – been looking at for a few years now, actually.

My first angle was to look at whether or not I feel anything when I write. There was a period when I didn’t. It took time and practice, but I started to feel more. I began to connect to my characters and my stories. I laughed, I cried, and, yeah, they became a part of me.

But strangely, the more I felt about my characters and stories, the less emotion I actually put on the page, as if the distance kept me safe. I was creating a distance between me, the writer, and the reader. That created a distance between the reader and the story. In short, I was having a hard time making readers care.

Sometimes I could even see it for myself. So I would go back through and add more of what makes me feel. I would add sensory details, atmosphere, setting with carefully constructed details to evoke my own emotions in hopes of doing the same to the reader.

But it didn’t always gel with readers. They could see the emotion I was trying to evoke in them, but it wasn’t real. It was more of a series of cardboard signs like the kind held up at the airport. One character would hold up “Happy” in hopes it would come along. Another had “Angst” scrawled on a piece of cardboard. Each just a sign to connect the reader with the emotion. But the distance was too big to be bridged by a cardboard sign.

I started working on collapsing that distance more. I took some workshops. One workshop leader said the emotion was there. She could see it. She found it effective. But she wasn’t casually reading. She was reading every word, thinking, analyzing. She was reading to find out what I needed to be working on. She wasn’t reading for story but for teaching.

I don’t think most readers read every word of a story. Especially in emotionally heated moments where the action is moving quickly. They’re rushing ahead to see what’s happening. If I’m sort of hiding the emotion in the scenery it might not be noticed. Subtlety probably isn’t my best tack

And yet, I couldn’t figure out how to come at it head-on. What, do I just write, “She was sad. Really really, really sad, the kind of sad that can only be expressed in banal repetition.” That seemed vulgar to me. And it cheated readers like my workshop leader.

But somewhere over the last few weeks I’ve noticed a tendency I have in my own life that might be the key to this problem. I’ve been told that I seem to have it all together. I kind of hear that a lot. Whatever ‘it’ is, I’ve got it rounded up and singing cowboy odes to the lonesome prairie. But this is, of course, ridiculous. I know that I leak insecurity and near-panic all over the place. But I hide it in the details. I say the together things but I throw in details I hope someone sees. But when people are concerned and ask you straight out, they’re listening to your words, not analyzing and dissecting for contradiction. They just want an answer.

I think it’s that way in fiction. In a highly emotional scene, the reader is asking questions. With those questions asked, the reader is listening for the answer and believing the words in the quote marks or coming from the character’s mind, not trying to weigh those words against sensory detail or scenery description. Yes, there is room for contradiction and nuance and complexity, but not for hiding. Big difference.

I don’t need to hide emotion from readers; they can take it. More than that, they want it. Now to figure out how to give it to them – one revelation at a time. Just like life.

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6 Responses
  1. wolfgang says:

    funny because no more than an hour ago i pulled a book off your shelf that was on this exact subject.

    something must be trying to tell me something….

  2. Melissa says:

    I remember reading a John Gardner book with this exercise: your character is grieving the death of someone close. She looks at a building. Describe the building from the character’s POV without using the words death or explaining the circumstances of the bereavement.

    I didn’t even attempt that exercise then, when I was graduating from high school. Now, I might.

  3. Des says:

    This is a very interesting post. I just finished a novel, which a reviewer declared was about a great love. I had no sense of great love in reading the book, at all. I think you’ve hit on something, with attentive listeners and attentive readers. We’re trying to glean all the clues we can.
    This also made me think of that billionaire, JK Rowling, whose favorite line is “Harry felt angrier (or sad, or happy, or amused or scared) than he had ever been in his entire life”
    But I suppose plotting skills go a long way to compensating for characterization 😉

  4. Rob ... ert says:

    Makes me wonder if the writer is not a kind of actor. To evoke emotion from a character that is nothing like one’s self (in either physicality or circumstance), requires a kind of spiritual channeling that smacks of acting, no?

    Also, your piece makes me wonder if this issue is one of those points of balance between the work a writer does for their reader and the work the writer makes the reader do for themselves — as is often done with scene setting. If a character’s child dies, does it really require a detailed description of tears and rib-breaking sobs?

    • Cindie says:

      Yes! Very much like acting. Good analogy. You don’t want an actor to come on stage and say, “I’m sad,” with no emotional markers in body language or tone. Nor do you want them to scream their pain to the rooftops if they, say, lost their keys.

      Balance. Thanks, yes. And that balance needs to be maintained not only between empathy and melodrama but also between dialog/thoughts vs setting, sensory detail, etc. You’ve really hit on something for me!

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Cindie Geddes

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