Skill 4.12: Invoking Emotional Responses

When a reader “feels” for a character, the author has made a connection. If the reader sympathizes and wants to know what the character does next and how it turns out, you have done your job. A few simple rules of thumb will guide you.

  • Big mistake—an “emotional character” does NOT invoke emotion in a reader. If you’re writing Steel Magnolias, tears are shed, but those ladies are “steel,” not a bunch of wimps who cry on every page. Indiana Jones doesn’t cry. Even in A Fault in Our Stars, a YA novel about cancer patients, the characters are tough and resilient. Crying will not make your reader sympathize, nor will showing a hysterical character, nor will throwing your character down a hill. Do not make your character an emotional puddle who whines to a best friend about their lonely, miserable life or who runs through boxes of tissue.
  • Emotion means showing a response. The dialogue and actions carry the brunt of our main character’s emotional response to a situation, but a POV character can relate what he or she thinks and feels at a given moment. Obviously, this cannot be stereotypical or trite, such as “it made me so mad.” That’s telling–not showing. It must be so true and honest and unique to this individual that the reader is locked in and possessed. Anais Nin once said, “The role of the writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” This is the stuff of great lines in the movies. Rhett Butler’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Now that’s emotion! And in a few words. In that line–that only Rhett could deliver–the observer is inside his heart, feeling what he’s feeling, and even though harsh, those were the exact right words at that given moment. Let’s use John Green’s opener to A Fault in Our Stars as another great example. Here are the thoughts of Hazel Grace, a girl with cancer : “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.” This is the character moving through “her specific life,” and I’m drawn in. I don’t see her crying and lamenting, “I’m dying of cancer!” No, instead, as I move through life with her, she discusses the oxygen tank she drags around in various ways, and I’m with her in her therapy circle, where she spots a hot dude. I’m let in on her thoughts, but they are so singular to her they could not have come from any other young, female cancer patient.
  • Big mistake—explaining every piece of dialogue and thought. If you write dynamic scenes, they will carry emotional impact. Providing a unique thought to an action or dialogue is good. It is not the same as “explaining” what just happened for your reader or going on and on inside the character’s mind. A unique thought is as dramatic as the action and dialogue. Less is more. Unique is mandatory.

Go to Skill 4.13: Avoid Adverbs

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