Writing Notes: Once More, With Feeling

I was going to do a post on genre bending today, but on a second and third thought, that seemed boring. So instead, I’ll revisit something I’ve touched on before – emotional angst and growth in characters. Why? Because it’s one of the things I struggle with most often – capturing the emotional tension and “vibe” surrounding my characters in any given scene.

I’m not just talking about romantic tension. I just released my first thriller/suspense novella, and some of the scenes from the killer’s point of view were the hardest to write, simply due to his emotional state at the time and trying to figure out how he got to be who he is. The thing about characters and emotion is, if the reader doesn’t get an accurate sense of what the character is feeling at any given time, the chance that they’ll be completely drawn into the story is pretty slim. Or that’s how it works for me when reading. Connecting with the character on an emotional, visceral level is extremely important, whether the character is likeable or not. It’s what makes us lose ourselves inside the story.

Of course writing across genres makes it a bit more complicated, because I have a slightly different writing voice depending on the genre. So I have to adjust the way I portray emotion to work with my different voices (you’d really think I have multiple personality disorder, but I assure you I don’t. Or not that I’m aware of, anyway.).  

Human behavior has always fascinated me. I think writers are particularly good at exploring psychological motives and the actions/reactions they lead to, because we’re constantly trying to get in our character’s head and draw out his/her motivations. I think that’s also why it’s so hard to put it on paper sometimes…motivations can be very complex, and cause a lot of internal conflict before it translates to physical action. And to create realistic characters, we have to telegraph some of that internal process to the reader without coming right out and saying so – they have to feel it, rather than read it.

It’s not an easy job.

For me, the sentence, “But why would he/she do that?” comes up as often as “I should check my email.” when I’m working on a scene. And the answer can’t be, “because another character did this…” it has to be due to some internal motivation or belief that causes the first character to react the way he/she does to the actions of the second. It does *not* have to be logical – humans aren’t always logical, and we often make poor decisions based on our underlying motivations. But it does have to make sense in light of the character’s previous experiences and general world view. Or there needs to be a good reason the character changed. It takes a while to explore all the options, and figure out which one fits your character best.

On the bright side, that moment when the light finally comes on, and you *know* exactly how the character would act/react and why, it’s the best feeling in the world. That is when you can finally harness the tension you need to make the scene work, and things just sort of fall together as you write. I love that part, though I sometimes really struggle getting there.

Of course I do this all in the midst of drafting my stories – that’s part of the fun, is discovering why the characters do what they do, and reacting. It’s also why I couldn’t put people I know in my stories even if I wanted to – for the most part, I already know their motivations, so as far as fictional figures, they’re boring to me. Frustrating as it is, I’d rather meet my characters in the middle of a scene than before I start the story.

The last character I worked with this week is Maggie, and she’s lying in bed, trying to predict what her lover has in store for her once she gets up. Poor Maggie has some good-sized issues, but she’s learning and growing, Which is a very good thing.

Which character did you last leave on the page, and what sort of emotional state is he/she in? Do you know why? Or are you still in discovery mode?

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One comment on “Writing Notes: Once More, With Feeling

  1. Jamie D.

    Just testing after a comment on twitter that someone couldn’t comment here. Check, 1,2,3! 🙂