Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Heightening Character Emotions

One of the hardest challenges we novelists face is portraying characters’ emotions fully and completely. Often we don’t go deep enough. Oh, the novel may be published. But the scenes don’t ring as true to life as they could have done, don’t grab the reader by the neck and pull him into the story. How can we dig deeper?

By exploring all the “colors” of human emotions in our stories.

One common weakness is to portray each emotion as an entity unto itself. In real life, human emotions are much more convoluted. Think of an emotion as a necklace of little beads. Standing back from the necklace, you might see it as basically yellow. But come closer and you’ll distinguish the beads that make the overall appearance. Many beads will be yellow, although in various shades. But others may be green or blue or red, even black. In the same way, any human emotion is comprised of many smaller and varied feelings, sometimes even contradictory ones. Too often as writers, we “stand back” from our characters’ emotions, and see only its main color.

If you want to portray an emotion to its utmost, focus not on the emotion itself, but on the varied “colors” that comprise it.

Often you can go all the way with this—even to portraying the emotion’s opposite. Does your protagonist love someone deeply? Then take that character to a moment of hatred for that person. Yes, love can reveal itself through hate, given the right circumstances. But this has to unfold naturally, as one conflict after another arises, and many other feelings will come between the love and hate. In the same way joy can reveal itself through sorrow, courage through fear, trust through doubt.

Sometimes you can even take the character’s emotion to its opposite in one key scene. Let’s say your character, a middle-aged woman, is deeply in love with her husband. In the last few months, however, he’s begun to treat her badly, staying out late at night with no explanation, ignoring her needs. She’s afraid he’s having an affair. Still, she’s been patient, often saying how much she loves him and trying her best to meet all his needs. Finally she decides this has continued long enough. She must woo her husband back. One night she makes a special dinner for him and squeezes herself into a sexy dress. She has extracted from him the absolute promise that he’ll come home immediately from work. But he fails to arrive on time. She waits. The dinner grows cold. She grows cold in her skimpy dress and adds a sweater. Takes off her high heels. An hour passes. She paces and paces, looking out the window, worrying, wondering. Still he doesn’t show. In time she cries, then cries some more.

After awhile the tears dry up, and then she grows angry. She vows she won’t love him anymore. He doesn’t deserve her! She stomps around the room, throwing at his imagined form all the awful accusations she’s held back over the last few months. Finally she sinks into the couch, spent. Only then does she hear his car in the driveway. Her anger rises again. She faces the front door, waiting, standing stiffly, her breath ragged and her make-up smeared. He eases into the room carrying a dozen red roses. Seeing her expression, he stops in his tracks. Meekly, he holds the roses out to her, saying, “I love you.”

Two hours ago she would have accepted them with tears in her eyes. Now she glares at him with pure, unadulterated hatred. With one sweep of her arm, she knocks the roses out of his hands and onto the floor.

Any doubt this woman loves her husband?

Look at all the “colors” of love this scene portrays. Before the scene even begins it’s based on the woman’s fear of losing her husband. The scene then starts with determination, and goes on to anticipation. Slowly it morphs into discomfort … impatience … mild concern … then absolute worry. The worry cycles her back to fear. The fear is now even deeper than before, because he promised to be home on time, and because she anticipated such a different outcome for the evening. This heightened level of fear leads to deep anger. The anger is sustainable for awhile, then peters out, ending in real tiredness—emotional and physical. The woman may feel she’s totally spent—until the husband comes home. Then all the anger storms back even greater than before. It reaches its peak at the presentation of the roses. As if last-minute flowers could make up for what her husband has put her through. In that moment the anger fractionates into its own multiplicity of colors—a sense of injustice, bitterness, blame, self-denigration at how she’s being treated. Finally, all those emotions swirl together into hatred. The hatred won’t last long. In the next scene she may be crying over her husband all over again. But in that instant the hatred is true and real. And the reader will feel it.

These varying “colors” can be shown through the character’s movement, vocal inflection, perception, and words. Not via the easy way--simply naming them.

It’s easy to look at the above example and say, “Yeah, that all makes sense.” It’s much harder to look at the scenes we’ve written with a critical eye. Does each one effectively portray all the varying “colors” of the overall emotion in the scene? I’m not talking about creating over-the-top drama for drama’s sake. I’m talking about understanding your character—and human nature—deeply enough to know all the “colors” that would naturally arise as a result of the conflicts within the scene. Also look at your novel as a whole. Do your character’s emotions seem too much of one thing? Then find where you can create additional conflict that would naturally lead to more heightened and varied emotion.

Adapted from
Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors. Post first run on Novel Journey, April 7, 2008.


Sheila Deeth said...

Nice lesson. Thanks.

Rachel Hauck said...

GREAT post, Brandilyn.


D. Gudger said...

This is perfect for what I'm working on. I'm struggling with an angry teen character. She practically hates everyone around her. I'm getting tired of her! She's my antagonist. Her mother is missing, so maybe I can somehow color in fantasies about her mother and a fierce defensive love?

Emotions are hard to write.