Oct 8, 2015

Bringing Characters to Life Through Emotion

To bring a scene to life, your characters need to come fully to life. One thing that will kill a scene faster than almost anything is an author so obviously intent on getting the characters to pose here, say that, and do the other the characters never become real people and never actually connect with each other. Characters that don’t connect with each other on the page have very little chance of connecting with the reader.

Don’t let yourself get so caught up in the need to drop witty one-liners, a piece of research, or an exciting fight sequence onto the page that you keep your characters from reacting honestly. Don’t be so concerned about getting a line of dialogue into a scene that you write cardboard characters who talk at each other rather than real people who talk to one another.

Forgetting that our characters are supposed to be in the same room engaging in conversation with one another is a common mistake. It's actually a form of telling rather than showing because the author is so focused on her own part in the story that she’s not letting the characters live the story. As a result, the reader ends up wading through several paragraphs or pages of narrative explanation or paragraphs full of uninteresting dialogue when what she really wants is to get on with the story.

Getting the mix of emotion right isn’t easy. If it were, none of us would struggle with it. While we want to make sure we include enough emotion, there are times when less is more.

Be careful not to confuse emotion with sentimentality. Sentimentality is simplistic, surface emotion. It’s clich├ęd, affected emotion, which shows only the surface without foundation. Editors are looking for real emotion, even if—especially if—it’s raw and painful. With the increase in technology, I think more people are writing and submitting today than ever before. Years ago, only the most dedicated writers were willing to mess around with carbon paper and typewriter erasers. Now that we can all point and click, cut and paste, the competition has exploded.

Your characters’ emotions are one of the few things that will make them stand out in that vast sea of similar characters out there. In the past two months, I’ve judged two contests for published writers. I’ve read 16 books for the two contests, all of which obviously made it past slush-pile readers, onto an editor’s desk, and through the editorial process.

Of those 16 books, 10 had plots so similar it would boggle your minds. (It still boggles mine.) Luckily, the books for one contest were final round picks, so they were above-the-norm when it came to the writing, the plotting, the motivation, and conflict, but those elements were also very similar. The only thing that set the books apart from one another were the different casts of characters in each book. Unfortunately, since the books were also eerily similar, their perspectives on life—their emotions—were the one true thing that made the characters unique in each book. 

For that reason, it's imperative to dig deep and discover what your characters really feel about their situations. Not what you think they might feel, or what similar characters usually feel by page ... whatever ... of your genre-specific work-in-progress, but what that unique individual you're writing about feels based on his background, his belief system, and the kind of day he's having.

Once you can tap into a character's genuine emotions, he or she will truly begin to come to life on the page of your manuscript. 

photo credit: via photopin (license)

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