A few months ago, I was asked by my dear friend Beth Hautala to write a guest post for her blog ‘Writing Word By Word’. It was the first time I’d guest blogged for anyone and I was a tad nervous about it (wouldn’t you be??), but it was really well received and so I thought I would share it here with you all.
So here are a few thoughts, techniques and practical ideas for writing well-rounded, emotional characters:
Without putting some emotion into writing, it becomes an amount of dead words on the page. There’s no point in telling a reader how someone feels in a particular scene, if there’s no emotion behind it. The reader wants to connect with the character you’ve crafted. They want to understand what makes them tick, and relate to them emotionally.
So the big question is, How do you go about accomplishing that?
I have a few techniques I use and I’d like to share them with you. Perhaps you do something similar, maybe you struggle with this, maybe you have some techniques of your own that you can share with us. I hope some of this will be useful to you!
As I write, I find a massive amount of material by drawing on my own past experiences and likening them to my characters. For example, if I’m writing about a breaking heart, I think back to when it happened to me. Then I try to remember how I felt at that time and I make notes. —Not only about the actual emotions, but also how I reacted, how I behaved for a few days afterwards, and how I related to people around me. In addition, I try to recall how others behaved towards me—my friends and family— the support and comfort they provided, (or not) and the sort of things they said.
Interaction with others is also crucial to understanding emotion. Everyone you meet has a story to tell and most love to share it. I listen carefully to the way people phrase their tales and the tone of voice they use, I watch body language, facial expressions, and make note of what they do with their hands. —Put all of this together and it builds a powerful picture. Again, I make notes the first chance I get. If you do this on a regular basis, you will come across a wide range of stories and emotions that can be catalogued and filed away for future use.
A couple of months ago, one of my colleagues was acting a little strangely and I enquired if she was ok (as you do). And then I got her story. She’d recently suffered some trauma and was having medical treatment. She had so many mixed emotions about the whole thing—one minute she was hopeful, the next, worried and frightened. Her face was expressive, particularly her eyes, and she moved her hands quite a lot. This was a veritable smorgasbord (please don’t think I’m unsympathetic toward her, it’s actually quite the opposite), and I made notes as soon as I was able.
Finally, as I am working through the expressions and physical demonstrations my characters might emote, I try to imagine myself in the situation I’m writing, then analyze how I would react and what I would feel. Again I make notes. Sometimes it’s just a list of words, other times entire sentences detailing the situation.
I always transcribe my notes in my laptop as I’ve found that pieces of paper can get lost, no matter how well organized or careful I try to be. Also, don’t forget to back work up. Nothing is worse than days or even weeks of lost work.
As I write, characters I design must have emotions that readers can relate to and empathize with, or I feel I haven’t done my job properly. They have to be real, complex, and well-rounded. Nothing accomplishes this more effectively than making sure I’ve given them true, situationally-appropriate feelings.