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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Character Emotions

I'm still on this character emotion kick. Like Jan, I'm sick of using visceral reactions to show what a character is feeling. When I was doing the final read-through of my book and layering in more reaction here and there, it felt like I was doing nothing but writing about racing pulses, pounding hearts, and clenching stomachs. At one point the thought occurred to me that these people needed to be in a hospital rather than saving the day in a romance novel. There must be a better way!

Today, I thought I'd found some insight right under my nose on my bookshelf. While searching for something totally unrelated, I ran across a book titled, "Creating Character Emotions" by Ann Hood. I wasn't even aware it was there. Eagerly, I took it down, opened it and started skimming for info. Well, I found no great new insight. The book just reinforced what I already know. The best writing comes from showing the emotion, rather than telling the reader what the character is feeling. Duh.

Okay. That takes me right back to square one. Here's the problem. To "show" emotion in ways that don't involve some kind of visceral or other bodily reaction involves a fair amount of writing. We do it by reflecting the character's mood or feelings with their interaction with their surroundings. For instance, if someone is anxious, they might clutch a shredded tissue in their hand. They might glance at the clock every few seconds. They might walk to the window and look outside, clutch their arms against their waist, pace, etc. etc. You get the picture, but it takes quite a few words to convey all that. I have no problem with that...if the emotion I'm trying to show is sadness, regret, longing, anxiety or any of the many other things people feel when they have a quiet, reflective moment.

But what to do when the character is neck-deep in some kind of action, during the heat of anger, or terrified? There's where we resort to the racing pulses and pounding hearts because you simply can't halt long enough in the midst of an action scene to paint a picture of each emotion as it happens. Action scenes by their very nature scream for those visceral reactions, so I just don't see any solution.

I'm open to suggestions. Anybody know a different way to say, her heart pounded or his gut clenched? If so, I'd sure like to hear about it. ;o)



  1. I'm taking an online class on this in May. I can't find its title now, but I'll let you know.

  2. Thanks Jan. Yes, point me to it, please. If it's not restricted to a certain membership or something, I may just sign on for that one myself.

  3. I struggle with the same things. I've actually resorted to using a thesaurus, which I never generally do. I'm a wordy person, and I'm disappointed in myself when I can't always come up with the best word for the situation.
    One thing I did the other day was I sat down with a book that had a really good little novella in it, and I started writing down all the descriptive words this lady used just to describe her hero, and literally I had pages of post-its, front and back. I was amazed. She made it so seemless. I was impressed.
    Pick out a favorite book, and try doing that, maybe just with a few pages. You might get some ideas that way.

  4. Thanks, Jennifer! I've actually tried that and as far as I've seen, most romance authors who have a lot of action or high emotion in their books resort to the same ole pounding hearts and so on. My stories all have loads of action and danger scenes, so writing the characters immediate reactions becomes a problem.

    Just out of curiosity, I pulled down Dean Koontz's "Intensity." It's about a serial killer and the heroine is in mortal and horrifying danger throughout. I was shocked to find he doesn't even put in those emotional reactions. Not at all. He simply writes the actions and the characters movements and thoughts as the scene is playing out. It boggled me. I guess the subject matter alone is enough to keep the reader riveted and on the edge of their seats.

    Thanks for coming by! :o) This ms. is really kicking my butt right now. I'm tempted to revert to my old ways and shelf it for a while and work on something else just to get a break from it for a while.

  5. Just checking in to see what advice was offered. Sorry I don't have any helpful suggestions. :(

  6. Hmmm... sorry it didn't work out. I know you like westerns and stuff, but try this:
    'Hands shaking, lips tight, she picked up the heavy skirt of her gown and made for the ballroom's grand archway. Salvation was just outside in the hall, and she pushed open the door to the mistresses' lounge with a prayer. The air that greeted her smelled of freesia and perfume and within the arms of it's invisible embrace there was ... only silence.'
    This is from JR Ward's 'Lover Revealed', and I think this is basically another way of saying her heart was pounding, and then the letdown.

  7. Jennifer, yes! The example you gave is EXACTLY it. Showing the emotion in other, unique ways instead of the same ole beating hearts. This is what separates the adaquate from the really good and even great writers. It requires more effort but, oh my, wouldn't the result be worth it?

    Thank you so much for posting that dead-on example! I'm hoping the muses give flight to our creativity and we kick some serious writing butt. ;o)


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