May 1, 2018

Writing Your Character's True Feelings

by Gary Fearon, Southern Writers Magazine

A favorite couple of mine has a four-year-old who loves to role-play, so whenever I visit we play this little game.

"Make an angry face," I say. He frowns.
"Make a surprised face." His eyes and mouth open wide.
"Make a scary face." He narrows his eyes and shows his teeth.

We keep this going until I run out of emotions or Ninja Turtles comes on, but I always try to end the game with a happy face.

Even when it's not part of a game, it's easy to read what kind of mood a four-year-old is in. It's once we grow up that we are prone to conceal our feelings and make them less visible to others. Therefore, what you see isn't always what you get.

Writing a character's emotions via physical cues alone rarely hits the mark, especially if they are clichés. A character whose "heart leaps" at the sight of her beloved or who has "tear-stained cheeks" virtually leaps off the page with plasticity. Something as rich and personal as feelings deserves better.

We've all had supposedly true human interest stories forwarded to us in which someone was the recipient of a great act of kindness. We cringe from the sheer amateurism when we read that he responded "with a tear in his eye." These fake stories are so heartwarming, they're almost flammable.

So how do we express a character's emotions without resorting to clichés? By looking not at what's visible through outside appearance, but rather at what's going on inside. What is our character's reaction that makes him/her unique?

Everyone feels worry, for example, if they think they may have left the stove on after leaving the house. But going deeper, each individual has a thought process uniquely their own. One person may head back home in a panic, another may blame their spouse and start an argument, while another may eventually write it off and let fate decide.

What your character thinks and what he does in response to a situation reveals much more than a tear-stained cheek will. Instead of focusing on the obvious, use the moment to dramatic advantage.

Speaking of avoiding the obvious, take care to eliminate extraneous words in phrases like "tears in her eyes" or a "frown on his face". (Where else would she have tears, and where else would he have a frown?)

Whether or not a physical display accompanies them, feelings are a very internal thing. When writing emotions, seek out the more secretive elements of that very human experience.  Coming up with a scene that touches the heart authentically will elicit genuine emotion from your reader and put a smile (on your face).

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