I’ve been enjoying a lot of new books this year. Some I received for Christmas, others I picked up at the library. While I’ve enjoyed nearly everything I’ve read so far in 2013, I have noticed something that separates the good authors from the great ones. There are dozens of things that divide the good from the great; this is just one of them, but it’s worth mentioning.
All novelists must deal with the emotions of their characters. In order for the reader to become attached to a character in a story, that character must have feelings in some way or another. The most lovable characters are the most realistic ones. And emotion is a very real part of human life.
It’s easy as pie to feel emotion. But it’s hard work to write about it. Here’s the reason why: when a human feels emotion, they very rarely feel only one emotion at a time. Usually they experience a jumbled up mixture of feelings. Often, the person can’t even describe exactly how they feel, because it’s too complicated for them to unravel. The mistake that some authors make (I’ve done it countless times) is to give their characters very clear-cut emotions and to explain just how they feel in detail. (Note: Such a description is usually acceptable in stories for younger children. I’m speaking as a writer whose audience is older children/adults.) Those kinds of descriptions usually run something like this:
“June closed her eyes, sighing. Gabriel was starting to annoy her. She had been patient all day, but now his haughty attitude was getting to her and making her exasperated. Why did he always have to act so stuck up? His tone of voice was becoming more and more irritating as the day went by, making it harder and harder for her to remain calm.”
While the above paragraph does convey the right emotions to the reader, I believe that it does so in an unrealistic way. We very seldom (if ever) pause to analyze our feelings as we experience them. A writer who puts such an analysis into words is chipping away at the realistic characters he’s worked so hard to build. Often, describing the evidences of the character’s emotion will get across the exact same idea in a much more realistic way.
“June felt her face go hot. There were a thousand retorts she wanted to fling back at Gabriel. But she didn’t. She breathed in deeply through her nose and ignored the smirk on his face. She had managed to hold her tongue all day, and she wouldn’t break the record now.”
There’s no explicit mention of June being exasperated or Gabriel being haughty, but the idea comes across plainly. June’s face goes hot, she takes a deep breath, and holds her tongue. That’s a reaction nearly everyone experiences when irritated and trying to keep calm. By drawing from reactions/expressions common to everyone, and using them to convey emotion instead of directly stating what the character feels, the writer is building the sense of connection between reader and character, not tearing it down.
Granted, it’s much easier to write “June was irritated” than to build up evidence of the emotion. But the effort is well worth it. It draws the reader into the scene, into the emotion, into the character. Paint the emotions of your characters convincingly, and your readers won’t just be reading about them. They’ll be experiencing them with the character.