Emotional Matters

Most memorable fiction has a heavy emotional punch. The emotions can vary, although the best fiction is something of an emotional roller coaster and mixes some variety of “ohshitohshitohshit” with lighter emotions. The challenge is to have readers feeling those emotions along with your characters – that’s a skill that can take a while to build.

Building the ability to force empathy on your readers is why a lot of beginners lean to tragedy. It’s easier because grief is such a huge, terrible thing, and if you kill off the loved ones early it has the side benefit of leaving the protagonist damaged, unsupported, and without inconvenient connections (how often do you see authors do what Sarah did with Darkship Revenge and have their main character dealing with a newborn baby for the whole book? That’s not easy, not for the character and not for the author).

So how do you pull your readers into caring about your characters and feeling the emotions you want them to feel?

There are – as always – a variety of techniques that work. As the other here have mentioned many times, it works better to show the effects of the emotions than to just have the character crying, or smiling, or whatever. My preference is to describe the typical involuntary reactions to strong emotion, mixed with a train of thought indicating whether they’re welcoming said emotion or trying to fight it. Since I generally write in deep third or first person, this works for me. If I need readers to pick up on an emotional response for a character who isn’t the current point of view, I’ll show that character having the involuntary reactions – and depending on the needs of the story the point of view character will respond appropriately or not.

One thing I have found is that simple is usually better. In extreme situations, the ability to think complex thoughts tends to go the way of the dodo and be replaced with direct everything. I’ve learned to let my writing style reflect this by saving the love of wordplay and cute phrasing for the more relaxed times in the piece so the emotional punch of a story can be carried in simple, straightforward prose. Without the nested parentheses I inflict on y’all here.

Some of the best examples I can suggest are the climactic sequence of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Thud! – which had me somewhere between on the edge of my seat, laughing, and in tears, often within the same paragraph – Sarah’s Darkship Revenge, damn near anything of Dave’s (I’m particularly fond of Steam Mole for that), a goodly… oh, the heck with it. Pretty much all my fellow Mad Geniuses (Mad Genii?) do a damn good job of pulling readers into a story and dragging us through a powerful emotional ride. Pick your favorite, and reread it with an eye to how the emotional reactions are evoked. You’ll probably need several attempts before you can do that without getting sucked in because they’re just that good.

Then try to do similar things with your work. And practice. Lots. And give yourself permission to suck at it, because like anything it takes practice to get better.


22 thoughts on “Emotional Matters

  1. I think I have the emotive down well. Considering I have really just started. Alpha reader says she’s a more emotion based versus visual based reader and has liked some of my early writings due to the emotion evoked in her. Of course she may be a tad biased.

  2. Alas, the protagonist of my current novel-length WIP is…taciturn. Enough so that Scotsmen and Finns look at him and ask if he’s depressed. I’m almost starting to wish he were a stereotypical southern Italian grandmother, just so he’d be emoting all over the place! He’s making this hard! Waaaaahhh.

    OK, back to robbers ambushing his caravan.

  3. I’m trying to wrap my mind around the deliberate choice of Thud! as an example.

    And failing.

    It wasn’t as bad as The Fifth Elephant, but it clearly wasn’t up to Pterry’s usual standards. If it wasn’t for residual affection, I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it.

    1. Thud! was uneven, but that climactic sequence with Vimes and Koom Valley was masterful.

      Sadly, the Embuggerance was affecting Pterry even then, and it showed.

  4. My Real Life attitude about emotions is largely this:
    Emotions are a lot like thermonuclear weapons. They’re ridiculously powerful, difficult to control, and we’d probably be better off if they didn’t exist.
    But they do, and will continue to. And the more time you spend thinking about them, the less happy you’re likely to be.

    So engaging readers emotionally does not come naturally to me. (At least, unless you call suspense and curiosity emotions. Those I can do. Sometimes humor and horror as well. Some degree of vague affection, mostly by encouraging the reader to project themselves on to the character, I can pull off.)

    1. I’d suggest observing people who are emotional, if you can do so safely. There are a lot of small ‘tells’ that show what someone is feeling, sometimes before the person is aware they’re feeling them – and many of these are universal because they’re purely physical reactions to emotional stimuli.

      Part of how I learned what sets me off at dangerous levels was observing my tells and teaching myself to recognize that if I’m doing certain things, I’m not stable and need to back off and get some perspective. Those tells are things I use when I’m describing character reactions to intense events.

      1. Two books that may help you for filling in emotions on characters with tells:

        1.) The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

        2.) What Everybody is saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s guide to Speed-Reading People by Joe Navarro

        The first is set up like a thesaurus; look up the emotion, get a list of tells or actions. The second walks you through limbic system reactions and body parts, and what tells each can give, and what they indicate. (It’s used as a textbook for police interviews, actually.)

        Working these into the beats between dialogues can provide an emotional punch because it lets the reader empathize, instead of just saying how the character feels. Readers are smart; if you provide the clues, they’ll paint the picture.

        1. Awesome! I’m going to have to get these. I’ve got by so far by observation, but this will help a lot.

      2. I have a wife, and three daughters.
        (Two of which show every sign of rapidly approaching puberty.)
        #Triggered 😀

  5. Well, I have something to add!
    Three years ago today, I published my first review on Amazon, from a promo I found here. Cedar was running a freebie of “Plant Life.” My title for the review was:
    ‘Sex is like oxygen…
    …it’s not important unless you aren’t getting any.’

    As of TODAY, I have written 444 reviews, although some of those aren’t for books. I try to review everything written by the Mad Genius Club members and followers, although sometimes that’s not easy (Pam Uphoff publishes books faster than my modem can download them, and I have the fastest internet AT&T offers).

    I have in the queue: one book by Stephanie Osborn; three by George Phillies; and one by Rhonda Denny, after I finish “A Fistful of Credits.”

    So: won’t you PLEASE direct me to the books you want me to review? If it’s on Kindle Unlimited, I can get it there, and that way you still get paid. If it’s on Baen, I can get those, too. Castalia House has always provided me with reviewer copies, but YOU’LL have to make the request yourself; I’ve asked the last three times, and I’m feeling like the neighbor who keeps coming over to borrow a cup of sugar.

    If the book you want is NONE of these, but you own a Kindle copy on Amazon, you can loan it to me. Or, you can just send me a review copy; that IS an industry-standard practice, by the way.

    1. Pat, I’ve been out of town and not checking things, but have you reviewed “Clawing Back from Chaos” yet? Also the next Colplatschki book will be out next week (taps on wood).

  6. I have read that many airports now use recordings of predators to prevent the nesting of unwanted critters (the local airbase does, or so I have heard from reliable sources (and I do hear occasional strange noises from the adjacent plane graveyard))).

    My question, though, is – what eats parentheses? I desperately need a link to a recording of it, whatever it is…

  7. I have dark angst down well. I guess i need my own genre- gothic military sci fi’ or somethin.

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