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.

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Being a Better Writer: The Thought Process

So, today’s topic actually came to me only yesterday morning whilst on my flight home. I was at 30,000 feet (or whatever cruising altitude was for that flight) and suitably armed, as is my custom, with every type of boredom-defense I can fit in my backpack that will work on an airplane. At the moment, my tool of choice was two-fold: My Zune (yes, I have a Zune, and it has endured eight years and far, far more punishment than any other MP3 player my immediate family has tried), and my kindle. Which means that yes, I was a reading, and perhaps—okay, definitely—reading with a critical eye.

Anyway, I noticed something as I read through the first few chapters. It was something that I’ve observed before in other books, but because this book actually shifted its own stance as it moved into later chapters, my attention was captured by it all the more closely. I noted the absolute lack of “it” in the early chapters, and then as the story moved on, “it” began to appear more and more, changing the tone of the book as it came. The more “it” showed up, the happier with the book I became, as, I would hazard, did the author.

What was “it?” Well, to be honest, it was something quite simple. Something very straightforward and elegant, but something that still misses entire books.

It was the character thinking.

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