I’ve been a mother who accidentally killed her only child. I’ve been an orphan stalked by the man who murdered her family. I’ve been a barbarian warrior struggling with how to survive in his brutal, pagan culture now that he’s come to faith in the one, true God. I’ve been all these things without ever actually giving birth, losing my parents, or swinging a sword in battle.
As a fiction writer, you’re also going to need to write about characters who are nothing like you and who are in situations you’ve never been in. And to make it work, you’re going to need to convincingly convey their emotions. Even in plot-driven novels, readers want characters whose emotions seem real and powerful. The question for us as writers is, how do we write emotions our readers will be able to feel and participate in when we have no personal experience with what our character is facing?
Identify the Foundational Emotion
When we’re dealing with something new, it’s easy to fall back on clichés. The first step to real emotion in your characters is to set aside your “knee jerk” reaction. Look at the character you’re created, within the story you’ve created, and go deeper.
Take the example of Miriam, whose husband cheated on her. What’s Miriam feeling?
Anger of course, you say. She probably is angry, but anger is usually a shield for other emotions.
Is her anger motivated by fear that he’s going to leave her? Wounded pride and self-esteem because she wasn’t enough for him? Jealousy because he spent time with this other woman when their son needed him?
On the other hand, Miriam could be feeling relief because she’s wanted to divorce her husband for years and now she has an excuse. Or because she cheated on him as well. Her anger is only a cover. She’ll get more in the divorce that way.
Just maybe, Miriam is secretly happy that her husband cheated. He’s always pretended to be so perfect, telling her how lucky she is that he puts up with her, making her feel like an inconvenience, like the rock stuck in the tread of his shoe. Now she has proof that other people won’t be able to ignore. Yet she can’t let them know she’s happy. She’d lose the sympathy she craves if she did that.
Do you see the difference it would make? You need to know the deep emotion before you can try to write it.
When Have You Felt That Emotion?
While as human beings we can experience an almost infinite number of unique situations, those situations elicit a limited number of emotions. If you can pinpoint the emotion and a time when you’ve felt the same one, you can expand on it to make it fit the situation, even if you find the character you’re writing about to be disturbing, frightening, or morally reprehensible.
In my short story “The Replacements,” Natalie returns home after years on the street only to find that her parents have “replaced” her by having two new children. She decides that she needs to kidnap and kill her brother and sister so that there will be room for her in her parents’ lives.
I’ve never been in that situation. I doubt you have either. But I have felt unloved and unwanted. I have felt second best. I know the lengths that a person will go to feel like they belong.
If you’ve felt guilt, you can write about a mother who accidentally killed her child.
If you’ve ever wanted to make someone pay for how they hurt a person you love, you can write about a husband who murders his wife’s rapist.
The situation doesn’t need to be the same as long as the emotion is.
Jot Down Your Memories
What did your body feel like when in the throes of that emotion? What did you do? What were you thinking?
You’ll also want to look for concrete details. What smells brings back that moment? What sounds, what tastes? You might not use that exact stimuli in your story, but you’ll be able to use it to find similar sensory details that will mean something to your character.
You can also learn a lot by seeing how people close to you react under certain emotions.
It might seem counterintuitive at first, but the more time that’s passed between when you felt the emotion and when you’re writing about it, the better. Time clears away the clutter and leaves you with details that will touch a reader’s heart.
With this exercise, you’re simply building a foundation to grow from. Your character isn’t you, so you’ll need to customize each emotion, but this lets you “become” people that you originally thought you had nothing in common with and to “live” situations you’ve never been in. When you do that, your characters’ emotions will come across to your reader as genuine.
Can’t I Just Tell the Reader They Were (Insert Emotion Here)?
The simple answer is no.
If I told you I was sad, what would you feel? Maybe a little pity for me (if you’re a softy). But you’re not emotionally invested if I only tell you what I’m feeling. If you see my sadness, watch me struggle with it, and learn the details, suddenly it might touch your heart enough that you find yourself crying along with me. That’s what you want your readers to do.
Do you have any other tips for creating believable character emotions?