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.


    1. He thought, she thought, she pondered, etc. i mean, I use a lot in dialogue, anyway, but if I’m going to have to be making the dramatis personae’s thoughts clear to te reader, that cpuld double. Or more than double. Which makes my hands shake (*this* is my typin’ hand, to maladapt from Blazing Saddles).

  1. I broke an MC. And at the end of the chapter showed her starting the long, painful climb toward healing and happiness. The light appeared very quickly, so readers knew that something better would come, although it wasn’t a bright light. Slowly, over the course of three more books, but it came. Revenge also came, but healing and peace were probably more important to readers. (Or maybe not – this is mil-sci-fi and Rada Ni Drako we’re talking about, after all.) So the reader has clues that all is not over and things will get better.

    In this case, the character knew that something was wrong and was trying to hold herself together with duct tape, baling wire, and pine tar. So there are multiple tells where the character says, ‘Dang, I didn’t used to be so jumpy” or “Come on, get over it, take a deep breath and focus on something else.” It didn’t work.

    Short version: Lots of foreshadowing, both of the break and of the recovery. There’s tension and pain, but never, ever hopeless, grimdark doom.

  2. I wonder if your character needs a wise counselor or a bad example? What would happen if she gets stuck in company with a drama queen, emoting over her victimhood? Will your MC snap and tell her to toughen up and get on with life? To stop letting the past control her? To stop . . . doing a bit of what she herself was doing? To start thinking about . . . the future and not letting the past take over her thought processes, her emotions?

    1. Dunno. Right now, it’s just the three of them, with a fourth incommunicado. They’re definitely going to run headlong into a mess of other people, but I’m not sure yet just how the MC’s going to react. Fun to find out, though.

    2. Having a drama queen emoting over someone else’s problems would – if I were a MC – get me mad enough to react, personally. But then I realized that we’re seeing a lot more of that – people jumping on someone else’s tragedy, to win attention and social points.

      1. I honestly don’t expect a drama queen, per se, but little troubles are going to lead to big troubles, and get complicated by a couple of HUGE problems.

  3. I’ve got a cheerful, bright-eyed heroine off on an adventure. She was carefully selected because the adventure she’s going on has some magical aspects that prey on people’s psyches — she’s for minimal drama, and so are her companions.

    What’s more she’s not going to actually meet her future husband until, I think, half way through the book. He’s not exactly the best husband material She’ll cope, and the romance doesn’t even get this far in this book, but it will add a bit of conflict.

    I think I may give her some romance/home-and-hearth envy

  4. A lot of writers try to convey traumatic events like the Batman origin story–one big tragedy that changes the character forever. That doesn’t reflect real world psychology, though.

    It tends not to be single events–no matter how horrific–that cause lasting psychological harm and lead to personality changes. Instead PTSD and similar disorders are the result of long term mental stress. In fact it’s very difficult to describe real abuse to people who haven’t experienced it because individual episodes, taken by themselves, often don’t seem “that bad”.

    It’s the cumulative effect over time, and the mental exhaustion that results. That is a very difficult thing to describe, and the slow process of recovery even more so.

    1. In my own experience, you are absolutely right about the long-term stress being the problem. The Joker was wrong. It takes more than “one bad day”.

  5. From the perspective of one reader…

    Emotional investment is good and necessary.
    But moderation is very important.

    People are reading for fun.
    Being around someone wallowing in their emotions, or oversharing their emotional state, is not fun.
    In fact, it’s downright uncomfortable.

    People experience emotion differently. As you describe the experience with more and more intimacy, fewer and fewer people will directly relate.
    You can get a few people deeply invested, at the cost of throwing everyone else out of the story.

    To keep things universal, white space is key. Invite the reader to project their experiences by describing effects rather than experiences.
    “She went home, and ate an entire pint of ice cream.”
    “He knew he should do something before he stopped being numb, but the light was fading before he managed to leave the room.”

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