Editor’s Note: This article is the fourth installment in our five-part series on how to build empathy between readers and characters. To learn why we’re doing this series and how we’re approaching the topics, read our introductory post.
Great stories have a broad emotional range that sends readers looping through laughter, soaring toward ecstasy, and plummeting into despair. When we open a new book, we hope it’s our ticket to a rollercoaster we’ll never forget.
Unfortunately, building this thrill ride as a writer is challenging. Rarely do humans experience one emotion at a time. Sometimes we cry when we’re reunited with an old friend and laugh when our fifth job application gets rejected. Big moments in our lives become tangles of feelings that are impossible to straighten out.
But, no matter how difficult the task seems, you can construct an emotional rollercoaster for readers if you have the correct blueprints and materials. First you need to learn three rules that prevent unrealistic reactions and then three techniques for conveying emotions vividly and accurately.
I’m not a psychologist or even a personality type enthusiast, so I won’t probe into all the recesses of the human mind. Instead, I’ll touch on basic, common emotional reactions I’ve observed, supplemented with information I’ve gathered from others. Hopefully, after finishing this article, you’ll be equipped to write believable responses from your characters as the plot twists and turns.
Three Rules for Avoiding Unrealistic Reactions
Have you ever read a scene that should have been powerful but instead felt contrived? What about a scene that should have been a tear-jerker but instead came across as melodramatic? Maybe it involved a character’s death, a betrayal, or the final piece of the villain’s plan snapping (obnoxiously) into place. These kind of scenes serve as cornerstones—but when they’re faulty, they can cause the story to collapse and distance readers.
Before you can reach readers’ hearts, you need to realize that emotional pressure doesn’t always result in an explosion, yet complete calm isn’t natural either. That’s how two-dimensional characters behave, and your goal is to create people.
Rule #1: Characters Shouldn’t Overreact
Darth Vader yelled “Nooooooooooo!” once, and that was too often. Only fictional characters protest catastrophe with an echoing wail. Other potential overreactions include “This can’t be happening,” any long (or short) explanation of why the situation is horrible, and too much chatter in general. Trauma usually leaves people too shaken to speak—or act.
Allow your characters to slowly digest troubling events. A real person won’t say much in the face of disaster because he doesn’t know what to say. Less talking is better.
When your character does open his mouth, don’t insert clichés. His dialogue should be brief but distinct. The specific pain the situation causes him will have the strongest emotional pull for readers. So, when he’s undergoing stress, he needs to sound the most like himself. If he parrots phrases readers have heard before, they’ll lose interest. They don’t care about a random person suffering—they care about their favorite character suffering.
“Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good” reminds us who Peter Parker is. None of the other Avengers call Tony “Mr. Stark,” nor would they admit weakness. The scene achieves its purpose because Peter is clearly the one venting, not some guy in a Spider-Man outfit.
Lastly, don’t be sappy. If readers aren’t feeling it, you can’t fix that by overselling the characters. Estimate how much emotional impact an event will have on readers and don’t overplay it. If your characters react more intensely than readers do, either the scene will seem fake or your characters will seem silly and cartoonish.
Rule #2: Characters Shouldn’t Underreact
Characters can’t take a beating, then suddenly be okay a few hours or days later, even if they try to pretend. Outward composure is a sign of inward struggles. They’ll need time to heal, and the scars that remain will be subtle but meaningful. An outgoing person may become more reserved. A careless person may become paranoid. An amiable old mentor may become gruff and bitter. These fluctuations in personality, which tie into the concept of nurturing that Hope mentioned in her article, demonstrate deeper emotions than an outburst of anger or grief.
Major losses and turmoil should change your character for the rest of the story, not just a couple chapters. Tony Stark suffers from panic attacks for an entire movie before he begins a slew of Avengers-influenced choices: Ultron, the Sovokia accords, finding an heir. You can’t kill your character’s parents for a gut-wrenching scene, then let his quippy remarks continue as if nothing happened. People are never the same after trauma. Write like it.
Rule #3: Characters’ Reactions Shouldn’t Be Predictable
When real people are under emotional strain, their coping mechanisms may contradict the circumstances. Sometimes happy people don’t crack a smile. Sometimes hurt people rant and rave. People mask their true emotions. If your hero is dealing with his brother’s death, maybe he starts blaming others and hunting them down. If your heroine’s best friend is getting married, maybe she covers her jealousy with flamboyance at the wedding.
Characters with stereotypical reactions will feel flat and underdeveloped. Instead of restricting a character to one overarching emotion, such as sadness, divide it into rage, fear, loneliness, cravings for attention, and depression. This enables you to write multiple reaction sequences for a single event without repetition.
Three Tips for Crafting Emotional Prose
Depicting the right emotions is the first part of the process. The second part involves choosing the right words. Even if your characters are lifelike and your story is gripping, rough prose will yank readers out of the moment.
Tip #1: Aim for Clarity
Don’t get too poetic. Emotions are supposed to be raw. If your descriptions are flowery, the scene’s focus will shift from the emotions to the prose itself. Readers will sense that you’re trying to sound impressive and be turned off.
However, you shouldn’t rely on clichés either. Clichés ruin a scene by reminding readers that they’re sitting in a chair holding a book instead of living an adventure. A villain who “disappears into the night” will derail readers’ emotional journey. Be concise and clear but not cliché.
Tip #2: Slow Down
Readers can’t physically see your book unfolding on a stage, but they will notice its pace. They need time to digest events, just like the characters. If your story rushes on after a cataclysm, you’ll give readers whiplash and reduce your characters to plot devices.
Sometimes our need to step back and recover from a blow disrupts our lives. That’s how stories work too. Without space to grieve and search for the strength to keep going, your characters will stay locked within the story, and you forfeit an opportunity to connect with readers. A well-written scene causes readers to mirror the character’s emotions. If the character pauses to sort through his messy thoughts, readers will identify with him on a deep level, because they’ll be as undone and confused as he is.
When you’re striving to bring readers into the scene emotionally, don’t inundate them with internal or external dialogue. Readers prefer to be guided, not pushed, toward a conclusion they reach on their own. And that requires a prolonged transition from the trigger to the reaction, as in the excerpts below.
“I don’t think this is working out. We should…stop.”
Jason blinked. Becca couldn’t just break up with him. They’d been together for two years. How could their relationship fail? And how could she dump him now?
I guess it’s time to return that ring.
Becca smoothed her cute flowered sundress as she sat down, and Jason caught a whiff of her perfume. She made eye contact, smiled, and then looked away. “I don’t think this is working out.”
The rest of the coffee shop faded. Jason didn’t hear the barista grinding the beans, or the businessman two tables over hammering on his keyboard. All he heard was the squeak of Becca’s chair as she scooted away from the table. She walked to the door, and it swung shut behind her.
He ran his hand over the small lump in his jacket pocket and imagined its contents glittering on Becca’s finger. His stomach twisted into a knot. What?
Granted, without being emotionally invested in Jason and Becca’s relationship, neither of those excerpts are soul-crushing. But the second version allows readers to breathe and fill in their own reaction instead of forcing them to think exactly like Jason.
Tip #3: Show, Don’t Tell
Describing emotion is not the same as eliciting it. You need to show the reason your character is wringing his hands or growling under his breath. Otherwise readers won’t understand why they should sympathize with him. Place readers fully in the character’s shoes so they experience the scene together. If you accomplish that, they’ll view your character as a fellow traveler instead of an actor on a pretty set.
Compare these three approaches:
Telling: Haylee was scared to enter the alley.
This sentence is lame. It provokes nothing but boredom.
Showing the character’s reaction: Haylee’s heart thundered against her ribs as she tiptoed into the alley.
This sentence is better because it highlights the character’s reaction and provides a sensory detail that draws us into the story. But we’re left wondering why she’s frightened.
Immersing readers in the character’s perspective: Haley crept into the alley, and as she neared the largest shadow, it slithered into an even darker corner.
This sentence puts both the character and the reader on edge. Though Haylee’s heart doesn’t beat out loud, the danger is tangible.
Characters Who Shine in Dark Moments
Connor from A Monster Calls is probably the best example of an emotional character I could name. His mom has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the story revolves around his struggle to accept that hard truth. Patrick Ness recognized that a parent’s death is tragic and life-altering and demands more than one reaction scene. Whole chapters pass in silence. Connor expresses sorrow in unusual ways, such as smashing up expensive furniture. The story progresses gradually and uses real as well as fantastical elements to help Connor process his grief, then offers bittersweet hope in the end.
Trials put a character’s depth (or lack of it) on display. If you want your characters to be more than shallow imitations of homo sapiens, they need to glow the brightest during your story’s emotional climaxes. And that’s the instant they’ll form an unbreakable connection with readers.
Return on Thursday as Maddie concludes our series by explaining how gender and age should affect characters’ emotions. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What makes a character’s emotions feel real to you?
Raised on C. S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend physical reality to reveal spiritual realities that apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts, and solar systems (including our own).
When not writing fiction, Brandon spends his time landscaping the great outdoors, sportsing, or romancing his all-star and lifelong coauthor, Megan.