Editor’s Note: This article is the final installment in our five-part series on how to build empathy between readers and characters. To learn why we did this series and how we approached the topic, read our introductory post.
“Gah! This book gave me all the feels.” We love when a story leaves a lasting impression, and we hope our own writing garners a similar response.
Emotions have such a huge influence on our relationships, choices, and habits. And our society is obsessed with learning about the human psyche. Kids are introduced to gender identity and taught emotional awareness at increasingly younger ages. A quick Google search opens the floodgates to advice on helping small children control their emotions, blog posts about understanding one’s own emotions, and scientific studies on a plethora of subtopics all related to emotion.
But how is any of that relevant to writing? We all know that our characters should be complex, but to achieve that goal, the emotions they display must be appropriate. If we’re targeting a middle-grade audience, yet our characters experience emotions that resemble an adult’s, readers will disconnect. Or, if a football player’s romantic longings sound like an entry from a teenage girl’s diary, everything he does will be implausible.
Accurate portrayals of emotion break the barrier between fiction and reality, gripping readers harder than the events the characters are reacting to. Three primary factors impact how people handle emotion, and if we pay attention to the nuances, we’ll be able to craft realistic characters.
1. How Gender Can Affect Characters’ Emotions
Many of the studies I read while researching this article seemed to be looking for stark contrasts between men and women. The analysts expected the data to prove that “boys don’t cry” and “sugar and spice, and everything nice, that’s what girls are made of.” Instead, the studies repeatedly revealed only minor differences between men and women’s emotions.
Hays Daily News summarized these findings in their article “Emotions Different for Men and Women” and concluded that men and women experience the same emotions. The emotions each gender expresses or suppresses is where they noticed a distinction. Men are more prone to exhibit negative emotions, whereas women exhibit positive emotions.
We’ve probably all witnessed this in real life. Most guys respond to exciting news with a quick smile and a dry, “That’s cool.” But if you’re in a crowd of women, you’ll need hearing aids by the time they’ve finished screaming, laughing, and maybe even crying tears of joy. When a man is angry, he’ll say so or indicate it through his body language. But a woman hides behind the vague “I’m fine” until she feels safe venting whatever is bothering her.
Does this mean all male characters should be gruff and all female characters bubbly? No. At face value, the concept of grumpy men and cheerful women seems cliché, but it doesn’t have to be. In The Hunger Games, some might classify Katniss as crabby and Peeta as chipper. But is that true? Throughout the book, Peeta discusses his regrets and fears. Katniss, however, rarely vocalizes her inner turmoil, instead focusing on the tasks at hand. She isn’t a ray of sunshine, but she’s definitely internalizing negative emotions like the studies suggest, except in a unique way.
I suspect The Hunger Games is popular because readers can empathize with the main characters. Though none of us have fought for survival with a bunch of other kids, we’ve all grappled with anger, fear, and loneliness. As writers, we should follow Suzanne Collins’ example. Get crazy with the settings and plot. But weave in familiar emotions. Readers don’t need to have experienced the same situations to feel for the characters.
2. How Age Can Affect Characters’ Emotions
Though studies haven’t unearthed major variances between male and female emotions, the results fluctuated widely when age entered the equation.
As toddlers, boys and girls showed a tendency to display identical emotions. Aggressive emotions are higher in girls at this age than any other time. Kristen Lindquist, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, attributes this to young children’s inability to express themselves coherently. Think about it—a three-year-old has a limited vocabulary. Her brain is still developing, and she’s trying to communicate her needs or desires to an adult who can’t make sense of her gibberish. That would bring out the frustration in anyone.
As children grow, however, they begin to conceal the emotions that are “unacceptable” to their gender. Boys grasp the social expectations placed on them to be tough. Girls pick up on the notion of being soft and sweet (although that trend is fading, so we’ll see how girls act fifty years from now). This is one of the reasons depression and anxiety rates are higher in teen girls than boys—because they’ve been conditioned to bottle up negativity instead of airing it. By the time kids reach junior high, they’re mostly aligned with the emotional patterns of adults, after which the changes seem to level out.
Depicting childlike traits can be tricky because we don’t remember how our minds functioned during that stage of our lives. But knowing that children are an emotional free-for-all until they mature is a starting point. It leads us to write a five-year-old girl who has temper tantrums in a store, a three-year-old boy who unabashedly doles out hugs and kisses, and preteens who restrain their emotions under peer pressure.
When a character’s age and emotions correspond with the targeted reader’s, the story is more likely to resonate. That’s why most YA protagonists are between sixteen and eighteen, and early children’s books rarely star adults. Readers have to work harder to understand characters who think and feel differently from them. Authors can remove that friction through characters who accurately reflect the behaviors of the intended demographic.
3. How Environment Can Affect Characters’ Emotions
As if the above information isn’t complicated enough, this last section can override all of it. Tara M. Chaplin of Yale University noted that children in a loving and trusting atmosphere don’t withhold their emotions. When boys and girls are comfortable with the people surrounding them, stereotypes lose their grip.
Upbringing and home life also play key roles. A boy raised by a single mom will be more in touch with his positive, “feminine” emotions. And, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, kids from stable, supportive homes are open about their feelings. What kind of home life does/did your character have? Did his parents encourage him to embrace his emotions or conform to the status quo?
Culture is another contributing factor. In years gone by, gentleness and decorum were associated with femininity (keep that in mind, writers of historical fiction). Nowadays, though, society promotes a form of feminism that’s fierce and assertive. The older generation might still shake their heads at a loud and reckless young woman, but none of her peers will flinch if she bares emotions that are far from cheerful.
All this raises the question: Are emotions the product of nature or nurture? Scientists haven’t come to an agreement, but my opinion is that it’s both. God created emotions, but our fallen world has warped how people express themselves. In the Old Testament, men exhibited more of the softer emotions. Jacob ran to Rachel, kissed her, and wept. David danced and sang before the Lord. We might raise our eyebrows while reading about these middle-aged men who acted so carefree in public (David’s own wife did). But neither man would be considered feminine, and based on how Scripture describes them, I think we can conclude that God views the total expression of emotion as good.
God provides guidelines for our negative emotions, yet He never commands us to stifle them completely. He doesn’t restrict positive emotions to women or negative emotions to men. Those expectations come from society—whether on the small scale of family relationships or the large scale of our nation’s worldview. Jacob, David, and other biblical heroes were closer to Eden—God’s ideal. The Bible states that our world has been progressively deteriorating since the fall of mankind, and that applies to emotions as well. Old Testament heroes were probably instilled with a more godly perspective than our society’s treatment of emotions today.
Evaluate the culture your character lives in. The values of her world will have a strong influence on the emotions she lets others see. You can get more detailed by taking her family into account, as well as whether she has a relationship with God (or a God figure).
Tying the Strings
So, how do you transform this mess into a cohesive plan for developing characters? Here are a few tactics to make the process less overwhelming:
1. Narrow your focus to one character at a time and decide which stereotypes to twist or imitate. Is your protagonist a thirty-year-old real estate agent who grew up in a broken home with unhealthy leadership models? Maybe he struggles with bitterness over his absent father and his mom’s numerous boyfriends. Or, because his mom was the only consistent parent in his life, he could be outwardly upbeat but inwardly depressed because he wasn’t trained to release his negative feelings.
2. Do intentional research. A slew of articles are available at the click of a mouse. You can also buy or borrow self-help books about emotions, trauma, and even child raising to gain insight on specific scenarios you’re throwing your characters into.
3. People watch. What can you tell about the people you pass on the street? What emotions are the toddlers in the grocery store displaying? What about their parents? How do they differ?
4. Remember that you’re writing fiction. Ultimately, the possibilities are endless. People are all designed by the same God with the same set of emotions, though how we express those emotions varies. As long as your characters have a reason for being puffy-eyed in the morning or snapping at a coworker, their reactions will be believable.
When readers finish one of our books, we want them to post five-star reviews that begin with “I can’t put into words how much I loved this!” A story’s emotional arc carries the power to move readers like that. We shouldn’t skimp on it. Even the coldest heart feels emotion, and if we dive in and show it, the messages we’re striving to convey will be more meaningful.
With this, our Evoking Reader Empathy series is complete. However, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What contrasts have you noticed in how people of different genders and ages express emotions? How do you seek to portray that in your stories?
Maddie Morrow grew up with her mom reading to her and her dad telling stories about cowboys hunting Bigfoot. The combination sparked her love of writing early, and she’s been lost in her notebooks ever since. Aside from writing, she enjoys loud music, good horses, and hardcover books. She lives on a farm in Nebraska with her husband and children. Her Gaslamp novella, Red as Blood, won the 2018 Snow White retelling contest hosted by Rooglewood Press, and it released in December 2018 with the Five Poisoned Apples collection.