Character Emotion


Writers must have an innate understanding of the human psyche. We must understand what motivates people, what destroys them, and how any given person will react in any given situation. Unfortunately, not all of us have this natural ability, so we must find ways to help us increase our knowledge. How?

  • Study Human Psychology at your local college.
  • Observe people, especially in emotional situations.
  • Empathize. How would you react?
  • Read books written on character emotions.
  • Study books written on body language for subtle ways to insinuate emotion through character posture, expression and mannerism.
  • Read emotional scenes in novels. Which ones move you? Why?

One beginner writer wrote what she thought was an incredibly emotional scene in which a driver hits a pedestrian. It was full of “God, no! It couldn’t be! Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God! Dear Lord, don’t let her be dead! Oh, God!” She was advised to look up the word “melodrama” in the dictionary. When it comes to emotion, the more intense it is, the more distant the writer’s perspective needs to be.

While this works as a good rule of thumb for beginner writers, it’s possible to get into a character’s head during a moment of intense emotion. The trick is to do it in a unique way (which isn’t easy). Although there are many, many masters of emotion out there such as Toni Morrison (Beloved) and Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), we suggest an emotional passage from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (pp 366-367, Hardback). Taken from the point of view of the oldest sister immediately after witnessing her youngest sister’s death by snake bite, we are given an excellent example of the power of restrained emotion:

There’s a strange moment in time, after something horrible happens, when you know it’s true but you haven’t told anyone yet. Of all things, that is what I remember most. It was so quiet. And I thought: Now we have to go in and tell Mother. That Ruth May is, oh, sweet Jesus. Ruth May is gone. We had to tell our parents, and they were still in bed, asleep.

I didn’t cry at first, and then, I don’t know why, but I fell apart when I thought of Mother in bed sleeping. Mother’s dark hair would be all askew on the pillow and her face sweet and quiet. Her whole body just not knowing yet. Her body that had carried and given birth to Ruth May last of all. Mother asleep in her nightgown, still believing she had four living daughters. Now we were going to put one foot in front of the other, walk to the back door, go in the house, stand beside our parents’ bed, wake up Mother, say to her the words, Ruth May, say the word dead. Tell her, Mother wake up!

The whole world would change then, and nothing would ever be all right again. Not for our family. All the other people in the whole wide world might go on about their business, but for us it would never be normal again.

I couldn’t move. None of us could. We looked at each other because we knew someone should go but I think we all had the same strange idea that if we stood there without moving forever and ever, we could keep our family the way it was. We would not wake up from this nightmare to find it was someone’s real life, and for once that someone wasn’t just a poor unlucky nobody in a shack you could forget about. It was our life, the only one we were going to have. The only Ruth May.

Until that moment I’d always believed I could still go home and pretend the Congo never happened. The misery, the hunt, the ants, the embarrassments of all we saw and endured — those were just stories I would tell someday with a laugh and a toss of my hair, when Africa was faraway and make-believe like the people in history books. The tragedies that happened to Africans were not mine. We were different, not just because we were white and had our vaccinations, but because we were simply a much, much luckier kind of person. I would get back home to Bethlehem, Georgia, and be exactly the same Rachel as before. I’d grow up to be a carefree American wife, with nice things and a sensible way of life and three grown sisters to share my ideals and talk to on the phone from time to time. This is what I believed. I’d never planned on being someone different. Never imagined I would be a girl they’d duck their eyes from and whisper about as tragic, for having suffered such a loss.

I think Leah and Adah also believed these things, in their own different ways, and that is why none of us moved. We thought we could freeze time for just one more minute, and one more after that. That if none of us confessed it, we could hold back the curse that was going to be our history.

This passage pulls us into the emotions of the character without overwhelming us. We feel the character’s shock. This is how you control your character’s emotions.

Our Editorial Services can transform your melodrama into controlled emotions.

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