June 24, 2020

3 Tips for Creating Compelling Character Emotion - Part !

Amanda Barratt                           @AmandaMBarratt 
Best Selling Author

I’m totally guilty of ending a long day by collapsing on the couch with a favorite show or movie. Though it may look like I’m wasting time, I’ve gleaned valuable insight into the nuts and bolts of storytelling from my before-bed binge watching.

One of the most impactful lessons I’ve learned is how to portray emotion. I’ve learned this from both my favorite cinematic masterpieces, but also from the “that’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back” less-than-stellar viewing material. Being able to recognize when art is executed poorly is an important step in learning how to execute it well.

Gathering insight from both the best and the worst emotion I’ve seen and read, here are three tips for creating and conveying compelling character emotion.

Tip 1: Less is more

Understated emotion is often the most powerful. I once read a well-known novel where the protagonist cried. All. The. Time. Each time he cried, the less I cared.

If the author had chosen to “save the tears” for a few pivotal scenes, the impact on the reader would have increased tenfold. Different characters, like real people, display emotion in different ways. As writers, it’s our job to convey to the reader the why behind our characters’ reactions, often through subtext or hints dropped throughout the narrative. There may be a character who does cry all the time. Why? There may be a character who never displays emotion. Why?

Move beyond clich├ęs. The more genuine the emotion, the more compelling the scene. Overkill dilutes emotion—always. As you study the emotion in your manuscript, remember the words of fashion icon Coco Chanel, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” If your emotion is overdone, “take one thing off.”

Tip 2: Walk with your character

In my novel, The White Rose Resists, my POV character, Sophie Scholl, is arrested by the Gestapo, interrogated, sentenced to death in a Nazi show trial, and executed—all over the course of five days. Because the novel is based on a real person, I knew I was leading up to those moments from page one. As I prepared to write the scenes, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted to convey the emotions of a twenty-one-year-old woman during the final days of her life. By the time I sat down to write, I was so invested in the character, I began to experience the physical manifestations of her emotion. My stomach tightened and my heart accelerated. I cried during and after writing. I had a difficult time sleeping at night. Though immersing myself in my protagonist’s emotions was draining, the results on the page were well-worth it. As Robert Frost says, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

Continued in Part 2 tomorrow, June 25th.

Amanda Barratt is the ECPA best-selling author of over a dozen novels and novellas including The White Rose Resists: A Novel of the German Students Who Defied Hitler and My Dearest Dietrich: A Novel of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Lost Love. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and a two-time FHL Reader’s Choice Award finalist. She and her family live in northern Michigan.

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  1. Amanda,

    Thank you for this article. It resonated with me that even binge watching on TV can build something important into your storytelling writing--if we are aware and thinking about it. Nothing is wasted. I've found this true in my own storytelling and appreciated the reminder.

    author of 10 Publishing Myths, Insights Every Author Needs to Succeed

    1. Thank you so much, Terry! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. And that is so true. Nothing is ever wasted!

  2. That had to have been a difficult book to write. Thanks for the tips.