Being a Better Writer: Common Problems with Character Emotion

This post was originally written and posted December 1st, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

After almost a year of doing this, I’ve covered a lot of the more general subjects, so as I was considering what to cover next, I decided that today, I’d dive into some specifics. Something that I have a strong rapport with: realistic characters.

More specifically, we’re going to look how writers handle giving their characters emotions, and where a lot of the common pitfalls occur.

So right from the start, I’m going to assume we’re all on the same page here. We want our characters to have emotion. We want them to be well-rounded, well developed … real, in other words. We want characters who are complex, with multiple facets to their character who remind us of real people. We want a character who seems real. We do not want a flat character.

But the challenge is that writing such a character is quite difficult, and many authors fall into pitfalls along the way. And I’m not speaking of just novice writers out there either, plenty of long-term authors can still be guilty of making any number of these mistakes, falling into traps by either cutting corners or not realizing what they’ve done. And for it, their work suffers. Characters become “props” in a story, interchangeable parts that simply drop into scenes or events to fulfill a purpose.

So let’s look at the earliest traps first—the ones that trip up the youngest writers—before we move on to the more advanced stuff. These are errors that—make no mistake—experienced writers still make, but are more likely to be found in younger writer’s material. Errors that can be easily overcome with a little effort and work, but still manage to trip people up.

The first of these errors is more grammatical, but it needs to be brought up, because failing on this count will lessen the impact of everything to do with your characters. This are the errors of telling rather than showing.

I know, show versus tell, the old standby. But if there is an area of your story that deserves to be more show rather than tell, it’s your character’s emotions. Emotions are visceral things, inner feelings driven by complex desires that are felt by people rather than observed most of the time. Almost everyone knows what “hot anger” is like, and what it’s various stages can feel like, and so being told that a character is “hotly angry” instead of being shown is a bit like being told that a meal was “good” rather than being told the subtle details of what it tasted like.

Part of the problem here is that there are so many variances within emotion. Hot anger, for example, can mean any number of things. It can mean that the character in question is feeling as if a burning ember has lodged itself in her chest, the heat slowly spreading through her body like flame licking the edges of a paper scroll, her muscles tightening and releasing in a slow, steady rhythm as the urge to lash out builds like rising steam. Or it can be a hot, angry hurt, a overwhelming explosion of pain and heat that flashes through a man’s head like an eruption, ripping free hot, burning tears that scorching tracks down his face as the world blurs around him.

See how much nuance that gave to what the character was feeling? Much better than the simple “he/she felt hot anger” that so many authors fall back to. One is a tell, a straightforward example, while the other is feeling that the reader can understand, relate to even if they’ve not experienced the same themselves.

So show versus tell. You don’t always want to show emotion (that’s why it’s show versus tell, remember?), but most of the time, even if it’s just a single line or a short blurb it will help sell your character far more effectively than telling them would, and often in not much more text.

But there’s a second part to the grammatical puzzle of emotion, a more advanced error that’s still made by many an author. If show versus tell is the level one trap, than this one is level two. Perspective.

I know, I’ve spoken about this before, but it’s amazing how many authors forget that a key element of show versus tell is perspective. Your characters are generally not telepathic, so unless you’re opting for an omniscient narration style, one character will not directly know how another character is feeling. And … a lot of authors mess this up. I’ve read a fair number (too many, really) of 3-star or 2-star books in which the author remembers to show emotion, but then makes the mistake of showing us the emotion of every character present. The result is a confusing jumble of perspective shifts that overwhelm the reader, jumping from character to character to character when all the reader should have been given was the one perspective.

But you can’t ignore those other emotions, especially if they’re central to the story, and here’s where the other half of perspective comes in. Rather than confusing your reader by jumping Quantum Leap style from one mind to the next, there are better ways. Such as telling about the other emotions, but from the perspective of the viewpoint character. This is a “hack” you can use, because it actually works to develop your character more. It might seem cheap to have your character say that “it looked like X was holding back tears,” but consider what that says about both characters? What does it say about how the viewpoint character views the character they assume is trying not to cry? What does it say about them if they assume one emotion only to find out a short (or long) time later that they were incorrect?

While this might seem like something that would be easy to pull off, remember that I could easily list off a number of successful authors who fail to ever reach this level of expertise except in certain, story specific cases where the plot called for a misunderstanding of emotion. This isn’t exactly high-concept stuff, rather it’s more difficult than it sounds. Practice makes perfect.

Now, enough about grammar and perspective. What about pitfalls that come from the bones of the story, such as the characters themselves? Well, there are a number of them.

The first (and impressively common) mistake that authors make is defining their character by one emotion. I even read a novel last night that did just this. Every character in the story had a primary emotion that they always exhibited. The ensorcelled thief was always impatient and testy, their best friend was rational/level-headed, the knight was apathetically resigned … and that was it. What brief moments of other emotion that arose were confined nearly to single-line tells; in all other regards the characters were built around this single emotion.

This is a common mistake. A lot of young writers will sit down to create a character, and in the process of finding a central trait to build their character around pick an emotion rather than an attitude—or cross the two so thoroughly that they’re for all intents indistinguishable. In excitement, inexperience, or just plain forgetfulness, they assume that with this one emotion to “guide” them, the character is complete, and will write an entire work without realizing how flat their character is.

It’s a focus problem, and a creation problem. First of all, no one has just one emotion, much less can be so driven by it as to have it color everything about them. Pinkie, for instance, is a character who is directly declared to be the Element of Laughter, but that doesn’t mean laughing and having fun is all we see her doing. Conversely, to the show’s credit, great attention has been given to showing all of the emotion behind her being happy: How she makes others happy, how hard she works, her reactions. We’ve seen her be sad, we’ve seen her be angry. We’ve seen all sorts of emotions. And while these are all connected to the fact that her favorite emotion is happiness and laughter, those two emotions do not make up the sum total of her being.

Now, there’s also the inverse of this problem: Too many emotions. This is another novice trap, one that a lot of writers fall into when they’re experienced enough to see that there’s a problem with defining a character by an emotion … but then overreact, deciding the solution is to have a character that feels every emotion ever.

Now, look, we all have emotions. But often, these character end up as overwhelmed, emotional schizophrenics, rapidly cycling through every emotion ever as quickly as possible as if to make up for the shortcoming in the first place of having too few emotions. These are often tiring characters to read, draining for the reader and the writer both, and tend to be heavy distractions even from what could be an otherwise good story. These are less common, (so I’m not going to say as much about it), but if you’re worried that you’ve gone this route in trying to keep your characters from being too one note and aren’t seeing it, the best way to check is simply to ask your alpha readers.

Another problem that crops up in a lot of stories comes from characters interacting with one another. Now, above I already mentioned having characters read other character’s emotions (correctly or incorrectly), but there’s another trap here that writers tend to fall into.

Have you ever read a book or seen a show where one character is always angry with another character. Or always sad around another character? Usually there’s a reason given (betrayal, past event, whatever), but there’s just this one emotional reaction. And then, as the character “develops” and the plot moves along, the emotion “develops,” but ends up becoming a new emotion that’s the only one that’s seen.

This is similar to the first problem that I brought up. Really, it’s almost the more developed version of it. Rather than defining a character by a single emotion, the character’s emotion is defined by who’s around. Almost like a diplomatic chart in a Civilization game, and with about as much subtlety. Characters are simply connected by lines to various other characters, each line labeled with an emotion. And then when they interact with that character, that’s the emotion they show.

Effectively, this runs into the same problem that the first, lone emotion character-type runs into. First, it’s not organic, but mechanically reactionary. Second, it makes the character a set-piece, wholly dependent on having the stimulus to react to. Lastly, it erases any subtlety about the character, since characters like this tend to be defined by cut and dry reactions.

Bringing up subtlety is, I feel, a good way to introduce the techniques a writer will need to avoid these pitfalls, because like human beings, characters emotions can be subtle things. Multi-faceted. Turbulent. For instance, there’s nothing wrong with a character reacting with sadness to another character based on some past event. But in the real world (and with real characters), their reaction will be far more subtle than simple sadness.

Subtlety is key, along with an eye for the complexities of each character. While a character might be saddened by an event, will they show it? How will they show it? Who will they trust with it? How will that emotion react with other feelings? How will it flavor their worldview? Their language?

If this is sounded extraordinarily complex, well, that’s because it is. People (well, sapients, considering the audience of sci-fi and fantasy) are incredibly complex, emotional beings, and if you want to write characters with realistic emotions, you’ll need to devote time to understanding that complexity. I highly recommend, if you are serious about making your characters well written, taking or auditing a basic college psychology course, for example. Emotion and human character are powerful, sophisticated things, and taking the time to understand them will be key.

With that then, you also need to remember that key word: Subtlety. Because while most of us experience emotions, don’t forget that we don’t often let on precisely how we feel. We tone it down, conceal, or even flat out lie about what we’re feeling in order to consider the emotions of others. If there’s a final trap many authors make, it’s in allowing a character with emotions to be a little too free. Not necessarily a bad thing (this is, of course, dependent on character), but in real life, would our characters be as outspoken as we make them out to be?

Case in point, Sabra and Sky’s romance from the Dusk Guard series. I actually received a lot of compliments for the way their relationship was handled, because the characters reacted emotionally the way real characters would—not overblown, but in subtle, distinct ways. Avoiding the normal pitfalls (lone emotion characters and tying the emotions to the character) while letting the two be subtle and thoughtful about it gave their actions and emotions weight.

So, to summarize, show, don’t tell, but don’t forget perspective. Don’t create characters that are defined by a single emotion, but don’t overburden them with an abundance of emotional reactions either. Don’t tie emotions to characters. Think about how characters will show their emotions and to who. Remember that they can be subtle, or even dishonest. Or wrong, even, in reading others. Study how those around you, yourself, and others interact and react emotionally to help understand your characters better.

Then put your fingers to the keyboard and write.

See you all next week!

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