Show Some Emotion
There is a recurring issue I notice when reading through students’ work on all the creative courses I’ve taught.
It is a flatness to the writing, brought about by a reluctance to show emotion in a character.
This strikes me as odd. We all know the heart of any story is conflict and we have heard the analogy of putting your protagonist in a tree and throwing bigger and bigger rocks at them. We make our characters suffer – because if we don’t, there is no story.
What is surprising is how stoic some characters can appear to be. I have read a story in which a person’s supposedly dead relative turned up out of the blue and the protagonist was able to hold a perfectly cogent conversation with them. Now if this happened to me, I would be a blithering wreck.
I have read time-travel stories in which a character realises they have defied the laws of nature and hurtled back through the centuries, but faced with this astounding situation, they barely turn a hair.
I pointed out this lack of emotion to a (non-OCA!) student recently. I was met with the response that their character was intended to be a very practical person, difficult to ruffle. But something extraordinary has just happened to her, I argued.
And then came the crux of the matter – this student did not like writing about emotions. They did not like it, because they did not know how to do it.
I think this is often the case. It’s easier, in a way, to explain how not to do it. The way not to do it is to state: ‘She was terrified’. ‘I was furious’, etc.
Imagine your character is an actor on stage, unable to tell the audience how they feel in as many words – they simply have to show it. They will do this, using empathy and memories and a range of other techniques. Are actors more imaginative than writers? Surely not. As writers, we need to empathise, and we have to find the feeling behind the words.
Use of body language is good, but there are dangers. I’ve seen a writers’ textbook that is set out rather like a dictionary, purporting to suggest body language for every emotion a writer may care to convey (and they are set out alphabetically). This, too, concerns me. If a character is A for Angry, they will ball their fists, etc. But surely that way lies the cliché? Off-the-peg body language will lead to mass-produced characters, lacking in the individuality needed to connect with a reader.
Take a tip from the poets and try imagery to indicate emotion. Like an actor, use props to help convey your meaning. Use dialogue, and think of the impact of what is not said, as well as what is. Show the impact of the emotion on the body, in a way that you have never read before. Now: how does that feel?