How Do You Show That?
No, not that. Pervs.
This whole life thing keeps being complicated. I don’t like it. I’d like to speak to the Manager. Wee Dave and Wee-er Dave continue to make my life interesting, and I’m not writing nearly enough to keep me happy (I suspect my eventual goal of a novel a quarter isn’t enough, but I’ll nuke that site when I orbit it). That said, some time alone and writing is good, and despite the eventual burnout my chosen-because-the-alternatives-are-worse lifestyle is likely to bring, I’m doing fairly well. Most days. Some days. Adulting is hard, okay? And it hurts: marriage, parenting, loving. It all opens one to several worlds of hurt.
Which segues neatly into the topic today! Suppose you have a main character who is an emotional wreck, for some reason. Or any character, but we tend to put our MCs through the wringer most, and for good reason. How do you demonstrate this in such a way that it doesn’t cause your readers to bounce your book off the far wall?
Because if you manage that, with the way most of us are publishing digitally (not just with our fingers), they’ll likely come yell at you about broken readers, and that’s not a thing any of us want. To the topic: unless you’re writing morose, dystopian YA, your characters are likely not going to be suffering the vicissitudes of adolescence, in which case, there’s not reason to drag your readers through such unpleasantness. Again.
But. Even when your MC is a figure of competence porn (I’m looking at you, Maestro Heinlein) they should be undergoing some internal struggles along with their external challenges. And as writers, it behooves us to spend some time demonstrating that to our readers. If nothing else, it rounds them out, makes them more believable. At best, we can hinge the climax, not on their ability to complete the task, but on their will to accomplish the impossible thing we’ve set before them. Which is fun. After all, the best stories aren’t simply Man vs. Nature OR Man vs. God OR Man vs. Himself (or the others academics seem to delight in spinning out for us to noodle over) but a combination of several. It’s about verisimilitude.
So, how to do the thing? I’m having this issue at the moment. My MC is undergoing pretty sever shifts in her personal circumstances, with truly world-shattering ones looming (that she doesn’t know about, at all. It’s gonna be fun to make her suffer through those). She’s grieving, she’s adjusting to a change in position and authority, and she’s starting to discover that her existence was never anything close to what her own memories have been telling her. It’s beyond uncomfortable, and I’m working on keeping her sane enough to keep marching forward through the plot. But how do I show that without breaking the story, the character, or the reader?
Well, I’ll tell you, I suspect each instance is going to be different, just as people are different. But just as we can draw some general rules for nonfictional humans, there are some thing we can do for the story to keep interest. One thing I’m doing is giving my MC a couple-few wise counselors. People who’ve Been There, and Done That, who can pour a metaphorical bucket of ice water over her head when my MC starts to get hysterical (she has reason). Relationships are vital for everybody, and so unless your story is about isolating your MC, I’d suggest giving them at least one genuine confidante. Especially if the story involves a lot of upheaval in terms of events, personal or of more widespread significance.
Another thing I’m doing, from a purely craft standpoint, is likely going to be breaking up the soul searching. Too much introspection reads like navel-gazing, and we can pace things better as the tin gods of our fictional worlds. I’ll be interleaving scenes of more doing between the scenes of angst and emotional outpouring. Just that, really. Action is adrenalizing, for the reader as well as the character, but so too can emotional highs and lows be. And the action scenes will engender their own reactions in the characters that need to be shown. Pacing such that your characters get to have their reactions is going to be vital to keeping the reader immersed. If your characters leap from battle to battle with stoic resolve, never expressing a doubt or frustration beyond, “man, my trigger finger/sword arm is getting tired,” well, you’re readers are going to get bored. Eventually.
This is where those confidantes come in. Travel scenes are fantastic for this, as are scenes of domesticity. Have your characters repairing something, from horse tack, to power/control runs aboard a starship. These are excellent times to inject some emotion-laden dialogue. If you’re writing in first person, you’ve got it on easy mode for your MC. Just remember to make their actions reflect their inner state. On the flip side, make your other characters just a little more visibly emotional. For writing in a tight third person perspective, everybody is going to be just a bit more emotionally expressive than most of us might be comfortable with. That’s fine. Do it, anyway. For universal third, well, get used to using a LOT of tags. And try to keep it from getting too cerebral. People usually don’t have extended internal monologues in the middle of a bar fight, for example.
My last suggestion, for your ease, hit on a couple of tells for each of your characters. A twitch, pacing back and forth, biting of fingernails, flaring of nostrils, even the way their eyes seem to change color with their mood. Write them down (you are keeping character cards and reference guides, aren’t you?) and refer to them when your characters inevitably get angry, sad, agitated, etc.
Action is good, but the emotions of our characters is where we really suck the readers in and work our wicked way upon them. Keep it consistent, keep it believable (not the same thing as realistic), and for goodness sake, keep it engaging.