How do we breathe authentic, effective emotions into characters when writing a novel?
The emotions of characters inform every aspect of a novel. Emotion is what pulls readers in and keeps them hanging on every word of every page. The best fiction writers take readers on an emotional journey, one with emotionally complex characters that readers will be thinking about long after they’ve finished reading the book. Because of this, novel writing is only for those who are willing to work hard enough to create complex characters that believably portray complex emotions.
Writing a Novel with Authentic Emotion
A typical writer understands feelings – we’ve all had our share of grief, happiness, anxieties, fear, exhilaration, depression, love, hate, and so on. Much good comes from writing a novel when we take the feelings and experiences we’ve had and use them to understand and portray our characters emotions. Using our experiences allows us to write with authenticity.
For example, in my novel Peripheral View, my lead character (Pearl) suffers from epilepsy and her fear of having a seizure out in public led her to having first anticipatory anxiety and eventually full-blown panic attacks. I wrote a scene that showed her reacting to the attack by trying to claw her way out of a bus.
A reviewer of the novel happened to be someone who had epilepsy. She asked if I suffered with it too. After I told her that I didn’t have epilepsy, her next comments both amazed and pleased me. She said that my portrayal of Pearl’s seizures and anxiety felt so close to her own experiences that it made her wonder how I knew the feelings.
This is the deal with that. Peripheral View, although a work of fiction, was inspired by a true story. Pearl was based on my Aunt Lucille, who suffered from epilepsy and the stigma that came with that since she was a child. Visiting with me at my home, she had a grand mal seizure.
So, I certainly can imagine what it would feel like for Pearl to have a seizure, particularly in a public place. And, while I don’t have epilepsy, I once suffered horribly from anticipatory anxiety and full-blown attacks. I could easily see someone who feared (and anticipated) the worst –the humiliation and embarrassment – of having a seizure on a public bus, could feel that fear mounting, feel the helplessness of not being able to control what might happen next, feel it to the point of seeing her desperately trying to get off the bus – right now! My own experience with anxiety informed how I should write the scene.
Writing a Novel Using Your Experiences
If you can take your own experiences and transfer the emotions you felt with them into the scenes of your novel, all the more for making readers believe in the emotional state of your characters. It’s one of the most effective tools for creating character emotion. Not that the reader should be thinking, “This must have happened to the writer, it’s so real.” We don’t want the reader thinking about the writer at all while they’re reading the story. (They can think and wonder about you all they want after they’ve read the story.) No, we want them to believe in your character’s emotions.
Writing a Novel is Not a Factual Account
We can use the emotions we’ve had, but that’s not to say that we want to write factual accounts of our experiences. When writing a novel, it’s important to keep in mind that fiction is not real life. A factual account of something is flat and is more of a report. Writing a novel isn’t about reporting on feelings, you need to surround the reader with incidences of how a character came to have a certain feeling. You are writing about your character’s situation and their emotions, which must remain true to their character traits. Additionally, don’t use an incident or an emotion just because you think it will make good reading. If it doesn’t fit with the profile you’ve created for your character, don’t use it.
Writing a Novel with Believable Character Emotion
Many people can write, but those who write well are the writers who have labored over every word of their novel. “Labored” is a good way of describing it, I think, because it’s easy to settle for “good enough” writing when writing a novel and it’s much more difficult to attain great writing.
Great writers don’t settle for the first description that comes to mind – when writing character emotions, constructing dialogue or setting a scene – they stretch their own imagination to capture that of their readers.
7 Tips for Writing a Novel with Effective Character Emotion
- Use Fresh Language and Images
Writing a novel demands that you avoid using clichés. You know them, common phrases like, “green with envy”, “cute as a button”, “butterflies in her stomach”, “happy as a clam”, and so on. Those are perhaps the first things a writer might think of when trying to describe a certain emotion. But don’t use that first description; think again for a new way to describe even the most commonplace feelings. Try to create fresh, original descriptions. Readers are easily bored with clichés and trite phrases and recognize it for what it is – a lazy, unimaginative way of writing. Be meticulous in coming up with fresh descriptions.
2. Use Props to Reveal Emotion
A character emotion is rarely done well through stale narrative, like “Daniel is sad.” When it comes to writing a novel, that conveys more of a statement than an emotional state. We must work harder than that to set the stage for our character’s feelings and to make the reader believe their emotions are real.
Using props in a setting is a good way to avoid stating the obvious. For example, a depressed person might have:
- Damp tissues in their hand
- Mascara smeared beneath their eyes
- A red nose
- Bottles of pills on the counter
- Empty whiskey bottles in the recycling bin
All of these props reveal the character’s emotion without having to state it.
3. Use Point of View – The Narrator’s Voice
Looking at the world through a character’s eyes is a great way to depict emotion. A character’s point of view molds a reader’s impression about their emotional condition. The way to do this effectively is through their voice, in dialogue:
- What strong words would an angry person use?
- What cooing words would someone in love use?
- How drab are the words of a depressed person?
When writing a novel, we must back up an emotional dialogue with good props and detailed, descriptive settings that suggest the same emotion. Doing so provides the writer with an effective way of portraying a character’s emotional self.
Dialogue can also reveal what a character feels but doesn’t want to say. Perhaps the character smiles at her friend and tells her that everything is going fine. She may be trying to convince her friend, or herself, about the state of her mind, but the props reveal her depression.
4. Use Point of View – the Narrator’s Thoughts
The thoughts of your POV character are another excellent way of showing their emotion. Consider a character who walks into a ballroom dressed in her finest gown, smiling and nodding at everyone she sees. But, as she glides across the room to the bar, she is having an interior monologue:
- She thinks her dress is too plain for the occasion
- She’s noticing that most of the women are wearing their hair up while she’s wearing hers down
- The bar seems farther away than she thought, and
- She can’t wait to down that first glass of champagne.
5. Use Emotional Complexity
Like characters, emotions are not one-dimensional. Emotions are complex – often a mix of many different emotions in both how they are felt and how they are portrayed. A person can feel angry, terrified and confused at the same time. They can feel happy, anxious, and eager at the same time.
As an example, think of how you might feel (or did feel) at the publication of your first novel. Let’s say it’s going to a reviewer for its first review. Consider this:
- You feel happy, right? (Your work is finally getting some attention.)
- Are you eager to see what the reviewer has to say about it? (What will she find compelling about it?)
- But, do you also feel anxious about what she might say (Will she give a rave review or slam it?).
When writing a novel, writers must see their characters as complex beings, only then can they portray them with a range of emotions. If the lead character starts out feeling despair but then through a series of life-changing events comes to have hope, she may move through many emotional levels that will take her from despair to hope at the end of the story.
6. Use Unpredictability
This means that we don’t take the easy way out of writing a novel by stating the obvious and then backing it up with a predictable action. For example, if we state that a character is sad (but, we really aren’t going to do that are we? See #2) but then try to back it up by showing that the person is crying – that’s being predictable. Many people do cry when they are sad, but it’s not the only expression of sadness. This is another time that a writer can take the reader some place new. Perhaps this sad character goes to the gym or runs when he is sad. Maybe they are short-tempered when they are sad. Push your imagination to find fresh (but believable) ways to show character emotion.
7. Use a Range of Emotions
This ties in with using emotional complexity. In order to give complexity to a character, we must be aware of the many different types of feelings that humans can have. Following is a list of emotions that your characters could experience:
Emotion Table for Writing a Novel
Writing a Novel with Believable Character Emotion – Wrap Up
Writing a novel that we want other people to read demands that we push ourselves, stretch our imaginations, offer up fresh, but believably emotional characters. By using the tips offered here, you will be able to provide readers with a fresh way of looking at things, and with that, they just might be looking ahead to your next novel.
If you are writing a novel and find these tips helpful, please share it with your friends, and leave me a comment!