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As writers know, the goal of any book is to make the reader FEEL. We want them to empathize with our characters, feel pulled in by the events and become immersed in the story. When a reader’s experience is emotional, it becomes meaningful, transcending mere entertainment.
Characters are the emotional heart of a story. Why? Because through them, writers can remind readers of their own emotional past. It becomes an intimate, shared experience that bonds them together.
Sure, readers have probably never been terrorized by a serial killer, vampire or demon in their own lives, but they know what it is to feel terror. Likewise, a roguish yet handsome highwayman has likely not pursued them in a roar of love and lust, yet they know what love and lust feel like.
As people, we have an unending spectrum of emotional experiences. We know sorrow and confusion, humiliation, fear and pride. We have experienced satisfaction, confidence, worry and dread. As writers, it is up to us to convey these feelings through our characters so that our description awakens deep and meaningful memories within readers.
Showing what a character is feeling can be difficult for writers. Here are 3 tips to help ensure readers share the character’s emotional ride:
1) Prime your readers
Spend a bit of time early on showing what has led to your character’s emotional sensitivity. Let’s say themes of betrayal are key to your book & the character’s ‘dark moment.’ If you alluded to a past betrayal by the main character’s mother in a scene before this point, then your heroine seeing an old toy from her childhood will become an instant trigger for those past feelings.
2) Focus on what causes the emotional reaction
Sometimes the best way to bring about an emotional moment is to describe what is causing the feeling. For example, let’s say Alexa likes Ethan, the boy next door. She is trying to work up the courage to show him she wants to be more than friends when she spots her rival Jessica at his locker. If you describe how Jessica touches his arm when she laughs, steps closer as he speaks, fiddles with her low necklace to draw his attention to her cleavage, etc. then your reader will feel that jealousy build even without showing Alexa’s thoughts or physical cues.
3) Think about how you might feel
If you are drawing a blank on how to show what your character is feeling, think about how the emotion you’re trying to describe makes you feel. Dig into your past to a time you felt embarrassed, or angry, frustrated, excited…whichever emotion is the one your character is currently facing. What sort of thoughts went through your head? What did your body do? Did you openly show how you felt through gestures and body language, or did you try to hide it? Then, decide if some of your experience can be adapted to your character. Emotion is strongest when it comes from a place of truth.
I’m reading this fascinating book right now about the human brain (yes, really!) that details how our gray matter works, and how we can evolve ourselves through concentrated intention and awareness. One of the terrific nuggets is the belief that every emotion, good or bad, sends a flood of chemicals through the body, and that repeated “doses” of this cocktail turns our brain into a bit of an addict, making it hard to break an emotional habit should we wish to.
What does this mean? Well, if you are trying to claw past feelings of low self-worth brought on by past trauma, or you’re determined to think positively and fight the cloud of pessimism that always seems to envelope you, your brain may actually work against you. Why? Because you’re denying it the rush of chemicals it’s gotten used to. So, craving a hit, it hammers your mind with defeatist thoughts (you’ll never be good enough, so why try? or, someone else would have handled that better) which encourage you to “give in,” and feel the very thing (emotion/chemical mix) you’re trying to avoid.
Anyway, this is an oversimplification so I recommend reading the book, but it got me thinking about WHY change is so hard for us, and therefore our characters as well.
First off, change is HUGE.
It triggers an emotional response because we need time to process it. In essence, we’re giving up one idea for something else. It’s the death of one thing, and the birth of another.
Because of this, characters facing change may experience the 5 Stages of Grief:
SHOCK & DENIAL:
What? I don’t need to change! Everything’s fine, F-I-N-E.
How dare you tell me I must change! I’ll cut you, I swear.
My life is over–nothing will ever be the same. I am losing who I am. #cuewallowing
But…what if I just do X? That’s good enough, right? Come on, help a bro out.
Well, this is the new normal I guess. Better get on with it.
And, in some circumstances, characters will skip the queue and go right to Acceptance, because the change represents something they have longed for or really need. They may feel RELIEF, GRATITUDE or even EXCITEMENT.
Here are some of the common reasons people (and therefore characters) fight change:
Comfort Zone Issues (FEAR)
One of the biggest reasons to resist is our need to maintain the status quo. The comfort zone is known and safe. We like it here. Sure, it’s not perfect, and sometimes it may feel like we’re in a rut, but we’re used to it and know how things works. But…out there in the badlands? Who knows what kind of clown-crazy goes on. Maybe it’s better, but maybe it’s worse. We just don’t know, and neither do our characters, and flight-or-fight instincts can push us to pick what we know over what we don’t.
Threats To The Status Quo (RESENTMENT)
Remember that epic party you threw when your parents went out of town, but then the cops came and busted it up? Okay, well maybe you don’t, but either way, no one likes it when someone or something messes up a good thing. If there’s a threat to your character’s dominance, authority, or control, it’s rarely well received. Your character may not only oppose the change, they might fight back, hard.
It Upsets Personal Autonomy (ANGER)
Many of us want to carve our own path, so when someone shows up to tell us we can’t, it causes serious friction. Characters will also naturally resist change if it means giving up freedom or control, unless they are self-aware enough to see it makes sense for the greater good.
It Requires A Leap Of Faith (UNCERTAINTY)
When it comes to our well-being, we want to glimpse the end zone or see data points before making big decisions that affect not only us but possibly others we care about as well. And, like us, if a proposed change has too many unknowns, or could have unmapped side effects, most characters will adopt a “wait and see” mentality and delay decisions, hoping more information will be forthcoming and allow them to make a more informed choice.
A Lack of Confidence (SKEPTICISM)
Sometimes a change isn’t bad, but the plan in place or the person manning the helm is. If a character doesn’t have faith in the leader or feels the plan is somehow fundamentally flawed, they will resist change…especially if they have a better idea on how to move forward.
Painful Past Lessons (RELUCTANCE & DREAD)
Sometimes change is a merry-go-round, and characters who have ridden this particular ride before and it didn’t end well are reluctant to saddle up again. The deeper the pain, the more resistance the character will display. Wounds are powerful and can easily override logic, leaving characters blind to an important truth even if it is staring them in the face.
Change isn’t easy…and often comes at a price
If you’d like help planning your character’s emotional roller coaster as they navigate a change arc, you may find our Story Map tool at One Stop For Writers really helpful. And while you’re there, check out the Emotion Thesaurus and the 15 new entries we’ve added to it.
How does your hero or heroine resist change? Let me know in the comments!
Yesterday, was National Hug Day (and Squirrel Appreciation Day, so I hope you hugged a squirrel). Yesterday was also The Big Book of Hugs release day, which could not have been a better choice. I am pleased to bring you a bear occupation I had known little about. Okay, I knew nothing about it, but …
As writers, we all want to encourage a powerful bond to form between our audience and the protagonist so that readers care about the hero or heroine and root for them to succeed. How we do this is through empathy, which is a feeling of understanding and connection that comes about when we successfully put the reader into the character’s emotional shoes.
The Power of Vulnerability
Vulnerability is a necessary element to building empathy, but like all powerful things, it is a blade with two sides. On one hand, as people, we connect to displays of vulnerability because it gives us a glimpse at what lies beneath the mask a person wears day-to-day. When someone reveals a truth, an emotion, a deep belief or their biggest fear, they expose their heart to someone else. The willingness to be vulnerable (a necessary ingredient for love and intimacy, for example) is about saying, “this is who I am. I am sharing this real self with you.” It is self-acceptance and courage at the highest level, the purest form.
But vulnerability means being open, and that means risk. We’re going out on a limb, opening ourselves to whatever comes. Pain. Emotional wounds. Judgement, blame, criticism, rejection, humiliation, exploitation, and a host of other things no one wants to feel. This is why it is human nature for people to try to avoid feeling vulnerable and to act strong, even when we are not.
To create credible characters, we want to mirror the real world. This means that like real people, most characters will resist showing their vulnerable side, too.
Do you see the conundrum here? We need to show readers our character’s vulnerable side to help empathy form, but as mirrors of real people, the character will fight us, refusing to let down their guard and acknowledge their soft spots. What a head trip, right? Here we thought we authors were in charge, but nope.
Luckily, authors tend to be, er, sneaky. (Okay, okay, manipulative.)
When our characters are being all alpha tough and refusing to let people in, we can turn once again to the real world for help. Some situations just make a person feel vulnerable. There’s no choice. So, if we identify “universal triggers” for vulnerability, it won’t matter how stubborn our characters are. Simply by deploying a trigger, we’ll be able to place them in a situation that leaves them feeling exposed.
Through their actions, their thoughts and by making them look within at their greatest fears, readers will see a POV character’s soft side. Better still, because these are real world events, readers themselves will know exactly how the situation can lead to that feeling of vulnerability.
Here are some ways to make your character feel – and appear – vulnerable, whether they want to or not.
Through not knowing what will happen next.
People crave control, of having power over what the future will bring. Take that away and you are left with the feeling of not knowing, of having no influence or say in the outcome. By placing the power in another’s hands through choices, actions and decisions, you rob your character of control. The resulting feelings of frustration, anxiety and even despair are all ones that reinforce vulnerability. Readers have all felt a loss of control at some point and so will deeply identify with the character’s range of feelings.
Through the mistakes they make.
Despite our best efforts, we all make mistakes. Not only do we hate it when one happens, we tend to beat ourselves up about it, growing frustrated and disappointed for not being smarter, stronger or better. Characters who make mistakes feel authentic, and it humanizes them to readers. Besides, mistakes create great plot complications & conflict!
Through personal failures.
Not succeeding at what one has set out to do is one of the most heartbreaking moments an individual can experience, and it is the same for our characters. A hero’s personal failure, especially one that has repercussions for others, is one way to break down those steel walls and show our hero as vulnerable and human.
Through a death or loss.
A deep, personal loss is never easy. Often a person only realizes what they had or what something meant when it’s gone. Again, this is a universal feeling, something all readers can identify with. Written well, seeing the hero experience loss will remind readers of their own past experiences. Death is final, but other losses can be potent as well. The loss of hope is particularly wounding.
By having one’s role challenged.
Whatever the character’s role is (be it a leader, a provider, a source of comfort , etc.), having it challenged can be devastating. Roles are tied to one’s identity: the husband who loses his job may no longer be able to provide for his family. The leader who made a bad decision must witness the resulting lack of faith from his followers. The mother who fails to keep her child safe feels unsuited for motherhood. When a role is challenged in some way through choices or circumstances, it creates self-doubt, making the character feel vulnerable in a way readers identify with.
By casting doubt on what one believes.
Each person has set beliefs about the universe, how the world works, and the people in it, allowing them to understand their place in the big picture and instilling feelings of belonging. When knowledge surfaces that puts trusted beliefs into question, the character suffers disillusionment, a powerful feeling that can make them feel adrift in their own life.
Disillusionment is an emotional blow and everyone has suffered one at some point. This can be a good way to trigger that feeling of shared experience of vulnerability between character and reader.
By experiencing fear or worry for another.
This ties into that loss of control I mentioned above, because one directly or indirectly has a lack of influence over circumstances affecting a loved one. Fear and worry can also create road blocks about how best to proceed. It’s one thing to take risks that only affect oneself, and another to take risks that will impact others. The paralysis a person feels over what decision to make when it impacts relationships is an experience readers understand.
By having one’s secrets brought out in the open.
Secrets are usually hidden for a reason and are often the source of guilt or shame. When one’s secrets are revealed, the character is stripped of their security, and they believe others will view them differently as a result. Readers can empathize with this raw feeling of being exposed. (This link has lots more information about secrets.)
Showing vulnerability is all about emotion, so if you have it, pull out your Emotion Thesaurus the next time you want to find a unique way to show, not tell, that feeling of being exposed.
As you can see, there are many other ways to bring out a character’s vulnerable side. What techniques do you use on your cast of characters?
Well, I was feeling like a failure today, like I’d let the team down because an idea of mine went sour. It sucks when that happens, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I found myself retracing my steps, looking at how I got from A to B to C, to what I should have thought of to avoid where things ended up. It comes down to a lack of knowledge, and I’ve learned from it. This led me to think a bit more about failure, and our characters.
Failure is something no one looks forward to or wants to experience. It doesn’t feel good to fight for something and fail. A knot of emotion (frustration, disappointment, anguish, anger) can quickly escalate to darker feelings (shame, self-loathing, humiliation, bitterness, disillusionment, and even jealousy and vengefulness).
However, failure can also lead to positive traits like determination, persistence, resourcefulness and a higher level of discipline. And once on that route, it will lead to change. To evolution. To inner growth, and finally that thing everyone seeks: success.
How each of us deals with upsets, disappointments and failure can say a lot about who we are deep down, and it is the same with our characters. Not only that, but their go-to coping strategies can also help us pinpoint where they are on that path of change (character arc) and open a window into where their weaknesses lie, and what attitudes need to shift to get them on the road to achievement.
Coping (or Not) With Failure
Here are some of the ways I think people (and therefore our characters) tend to react when it comes to failure. Have a read and see which rings true for your hero or heroine.
For some, failure triggers the blame game. Rather than look within to what they might have done differently or take responsibility for their actions and performance, the blamer makes it about other people: What they did to cause this result. How they let one down. How it was rigged from the start. How one was held back, not helped, how others didn’t play fair.
The lesson that must be learned: be accountable, and be responsible. Whatever comes, whatever the result is, face it and take ownership for your own actions and choices.
Quitters become so bruised and angry at coming up short they take themselves out of the game. Quitters may put in a lot of effort, but at the end of the day, they have a breaking point. Many have an expectation that hard work or wanting something badly enough should lead to reward.
The lesson that must be learned: lose the entitlement and become a force of will. Hard work and dedication by nature is about going the distance, about pushing through pain and giving as much as is required. It doesn’t have a finish line to aim for; you only find it when you cross it.
Minimizers care about something right up until it slips through their fingers. Then they proclaim that the goal or prize is not as big a deal as people think. They protect their own feelings over failing by trying to minimize the achievement (also minimizing the victor in the process).
The lesson that must be learned: stop lying about what matters. Instead of pretending you don’t care, care deeply. The tide of negative feelings that come from failure shouldn’t stop you. If it’s important, proclaim it. Chase it. Try again and again because it’s worth doing.
Refusers deal with failure by denying a failure occurred at all. In their minds they won, but simply were denied the prize. Convinced that they did everything right, they believe they were indeed the “true” victor. They cannot take criticism and convince themselves that any differing opinions are invalid.
The lesson that must be learned: take self-importance down a peg. No one knows it all, and no one is so perfect there’s zero room for improvement. Look behind the mask, and ask the toughest question of all: Why is the need to always be right or to win so important? What fear does it hide?
Recommitters represent the point of the knife. In that low moment, they take failing hard. They question their path. They may toy with quitting. But something sticks their feet to the road. The goal, the closeness of it, the realization of the hard work it took to get this far…something pulls them back from the brink. They marry the goal, and go all-in.
The lesson that must be learned: don’t give up. The hard part is done and now it’s about that last 10%. Push, strive, and believe. Keep learning and growing and it will happen.
Adapters see failure as part of the process, so when they fail, they adapt. It isn’t the end of the world; there are other thing to want and go after. They move on.
The lesson that must be learned: find your passion and believe in yourself. Adapters may appear well-adjusted because they move on quickly, but often this is a manifestation of their fear of risk. They believe it’s better to settle for what is safe than risk being denied what they really want. Settling usually leads to regret so if you want something, don’t give up on it.
Assess and Adjust
The double A’s move past failure in the healthiest way possible: they assess their performance, objectively review what they could have done better, and then they adjust, seeking out the help they need to improve and get to the next step.
The lesson that must be learned: there’s no lesson here…they’ve already learned it: you should never be afraid of growing and evolving, and asking for assistance if you need it.
Personalizers take the failure to heart, and like the crumbly edge of a sinkhole, that darkness grows. Failing to achieve the goal becomes a spiral of falsehoods where a character convinces themselves that everything they touch is bad, that their life is one big failure.
The lesson that must be learned: your failure doesn’t define you, but your reaction to it might. Get some distance and perspective. Every day is new. Everyone fails and feels inadequate at times, but it is each person’s choice to make a change. Big or small, change happens because we will it, and we work toward it.
Wallowers crumple. They become destroyed by failure, and are unable to move on from it or imagine feeling any different. They want others to cater to them, feel sorry for them, and jump through hoops to help pull them out of their funk.
The lesson that must be learned: wallowing isn’t attractive, and makes you weak. People may cater to you when you wallow, and this helps make you feel special, but this is just a patch on a leaky boat. You’ll never be happy if you let failure own you. Realize failure is really an opportunity to learn and grow. Embrace it, and resolve to do better next time.
So what are your thoughts on this? Do these lessons make sense? Do they help to reveal some of your character’s flaws, or give you ideas for emotional wounds? I hope so!
Failure is such an interesting topic, because no one likes failing and yet it is one of the building blocks that pushes a character find the resiliency to to keep trying, to fight…and that makes for compelling reading.
Which of these coping methods do your characters use? Or, do they handle failure in a different way? Let me know in the comments!
A friend of mine asked me for a list of posts that I would like shared online (how nice, right?) and it prompted me to visit my website stats to see what posts were the most popular with those who visit.
This in turn led to the bright idea that instead of just sending her the list, I should share it here, too!
If you are looking for helpful posts in different areas of writing and marketing, these TOP 5 LISTS are ones visitors seem to enjoy the most. If you find any of them especially helpful, feel free to pass them on to others, too.
There has always been a debate on what is more important–plot or characters. For a long time, I stood on the PLOT side of things, because I thought it was my cool twists and turns that kept readers glued to the page. CHARACTERS, I believed, were just the people populating my world, the ones I did things to in order for the to story work.
And, well…I was wrong.
How do I know? Well, when I think about what makes a great read, characters always pop into my mind first. Barrie Watson and Eight Beaufort from Martina Boone’s novel Compulsion. Karou of Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Mat Cauthom of The Wheel of Time. These are the characters that entranced me. I’m guessing you probably feel the same way. If you think about the stories you loved to read, the ones that made you forget to eat or workout or walk the dog…what about them stuck with you after the book was finished? Do you wish you could read more of the same plot, or more of the characters? I’m guessing if you are like me, it’s the latter.
I’m not saying that plot and world building aren’t important, because they are. But it is the characters readers bond with and root for, and this happens because of one very important word: EMPATHY.
When characters are unique yet well-rounded and familiar in some way, we connect with them. We empathize with what they are going through, become tense when trouble hits, and relax when they emerge in one piece. We care about what happens to them, because our emotions are engaged.
So how do we build strong characters that command a reader’s attention?
Create Empathy Through Action, Not Circumstance
Some writers try to use hardship as a way to elicit reader empathy: characters who are kicked around, impoverished, or have some sort of physical disability or handicap. Stories with these types of character situations might start out with dead parents, being moved across the country, losing a job or discovering a spouse was cheating. Going this route can be dicey however because it can come across as an overused plot device if the author isn’t careful. Readers might feel sympathy for what the character is dealing with, but they might also grow bored or impatient because they have seen this scenario before. Readers want and need something more.
What pulls a reader in and makes them care is when they see how the character acts despite their hardship. The actions that one takes regardless of bad circumstances is what is compelling. If a character is an understandably a frazzled mess after discovering his spouse has packed up and left him a Dear John note on his nightstand, and yet he manages to shove hurt aside because he has a shift at the Teen Distress Call Center, that makes us care. His actions, his strength…this is why we are drawn in, and whatever his goal is, readers will now have an easier time rooting for him to succeed.
Understand What Came Before
The character’s life did not begin on page one, so we need to spend some time thinking about their past. What events and traumas shaped them? What happened to them that left them feeling utterly helpless and weak? Who let them down in life, and who built them up? What marked them, and wounded them? How do these past events now influence their personality and behavior?
We all try to avoid the hurts of the past, and to keep bad things from repeating. Thinking about who and what hurt your character will help you understand how they behave now to emotionally protect themselves. Don’t be afraid to show their vulnerabilities. We all feel vulnerable at times, even though we try to mask this feeling. Readers will connect to the rawness of a character feeling exposed.
Give Them Flaws, Self-Doubt & Let Them Make Mistakes
People are unique, and characters must be as well, but that doesn’t mean they should be completely foreign to the reader. One way to create commonality is through flaws. As people, we are all flawed and expect to see faults in others. If a character is too perfect and too confident, they won’t feel real. Showing a hero’s shortcomings makes them authentic and rounded. Readers will empathize when they see a character overreact and make a mistake as a result of flawed thinking. It is a reminder of their own imperfections, and they know just how painful it can be when saying or doing something stupid creates a big mess to clean up.
How do you create complex heroes worth rooting for? What ways do you help them to stand out to readers? Tell me in the comments!
For the next month, my writing goals for my work-in-progress novel trilogy are clear: conflict, emotion, surprise, enrich.
The trilogy is tentatively called, The Blue Planets, and is an early-teen or YA science fiction. Book 1, The Blue Marble, has a complete draft; for Books 2 and 3, I have complete outlines. I’m happy with all of it, but I know it needs to go much farther before anyone sees it. For the next month, I’ll work simultaneously on revising Book 1 and the outlines, trying to weave them into a more coherent whole.
4 Revision Goals
Conflict. The first goal in revising The Blue Planets is to up the conflict.
No conflict = no story, no readers.
Small conflict = small readership.
Big conflict = bigger readership.
Huge, gut-wrenching, moral-decison-making conflict = huge, engaged readership.
I’ll be looking at conflict globally and in each scene. Man v. nature is built into the story in powerful ways already. But I need to look at man v. man, both overall and in each scene. How can I put people at odds in more ways and in more interesting ways?
Emotion. Always my weakest point, I’ll go scene by scene and ask questions:
What emotional things happened just before this scene? What’s the attitude of each character coming in?
What is the worst thing–emotionally–that could happen to the main character? That’s what I must confront him with.
What is the emotional arc of the scene?
What else can I do to deepen the emotional impact?
Surprise. Readers read for entertainment. If they can predict exactly what happens in a story, they’re bored. I’ll go through–especially the outlines–and ask, “What does the reader expect here?” I’ll look for ways to twist that expectation to fulfill it, but with a twist.
Enrich. I’m excited about enriching the stories, because this part gets past the basic plotting and into fun stuff. Where can I add humor? Here are previous posts on 3 humor techniques and then 5 more. I’m hoping for a running gag, at least. I’ll be working to tie the three books together through scene, character, bits of dialogue, running gags, perhaps a bit of clothing, or a mug of triple-shot venti mocha–something. Enrichment might be adding bits of scientific information artfully, without doing an information dump. Making the characters quirkier and more fun to be around. Loosening up on dialogue.
By the middle to end of July, I expect the BLUES to be in shape to send out. I’m excited.
What are your goals for summer writing?
BBC America’s Orphan Black seems so immediate, so plausible, so unfuturistic, that Cosima Herter, the show’s science consultant, is used to being asked whether human reproductive cloning could be happening in a lab somewhere right now. If so, we wouldn’t know, she says. It’s illegal in so many countries, no one would want to talk about it. But one thing is clear, she told me, when we met to talk about her work on the show: in our era of synthetic biology — of Craig Venter’s biological printer and George Church’s standardized biological parts, of three-parent babies and of treatment for cancer that involves reengineered viruses— genetics as we have conceived of it is already dead. We don’t have the language for what is emerging.
It’s one of my favorite things I’ve written, and also one of the strangest. It’s very much keeping with the forward-looking aspects of the book I’m working on. And it has the endorsements of a whole lotta Orphan Blackers, including, Tatiana Maslany, Graeme Manson, and Herter herself, which makes me happy.
The international response to the photographs of the dead body of three year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore on a Turkish beach on 2 September 2015, has prompted intense debate. That debate has been not only about the proper attitude of Britain and other countries to the refugee crisis, but also about the proper place of strong emotions in political life.
Even though I recently turned sixty and have taught at colleges and conservatories, when I hear the words “back to school,” the image that springs to mind is of my teenage self as a Juilliard student in the 1970s. If I ask that self what my main educational breakthrough from those years was, the answer surprises me: discovering what actors learn. Actors study their own emotions.
Welcome to One Stop For Writers’ launch week. Have you entered to WIN one of seven 1-Year Subscriptions to One Stop For Writers, or the Pay-it-forward Education Gift for a workshop seat in writing coach Jami Gold’s terrific online class (ending today)?
Also, don’t forget to snag a special Launch week code giving you 50% off ANY PLAN at One Stop For Writers.
As you can imagine with an online library, there are many nooks and crannies to explore. One of my favorite places is up in The Stacks where we keep our Templates and Worksheets. (click to enlarge)
Pictured above is the Character Fears Template. By following the prompts, you brainstorm a character’s secrets, failures, greatest mistakes, relationship issues, wounding events, situations he avoids, the lies he believes, etc. so it uncovers the thing he fears most…which, in Character Arc, is the very thing he must face and defeat to become whole and achieve his objective or goal.
Templates are easy to use. You can fill them out right at One Stop and the information transforms into a helpful “wheel” showing how everything ties together. This is terrific for planning and plotting, and will also help keep you focused on your character’s motivation in each scene. Once a Template is created, you can save and access it onsite, or export it to your computer for printing. Try creating one for each character in your book!
(We’re also building new ones as we go, so if you have an idea for a template or worksheet that you’d really like to see, make sure to submit your Wishlist Idea through the CONNECT button at One Stop.)
If you aren’t a member yet, don’t worry! You can register at any time for free and poke around. Go check out the Templates and Worksheets for yourself, and see what you think!
It’s NaNoWriMo Season, and that means a ton of writers are planning their novels. Or, at the very least (in the case of you pantsers) thinking about their novel.
Whether you plot or pants, if you don’t want to end up in No Man’s Land halfway to 50K, it is often helpful to have a solid foundation of ideas about your book. So, let’s look at the biggie of a novel: Character Arc. If you plot, make some notes, copious notes! If you pants, spend some time mulling these over in the shower leading up to November 1st. Your characters will thank you for it!
Are you excited? I hope so. You’re about to create a new reality!
Can you imagine it, that fresh page that’s full of potential? Your main character is going to…um, do things…in your novel. A great many things! Exciting things. Dangerous things. There might even be a giant penguin with lasers shooting out of its eyes, who knows?
But here’s a fact, my writing friend…if you don’t know WHY your protagonist is doing what he’s doing, readers may not care enough to read beyond a chapter or two.
The M word…Motivation
It doesn’t matter what cool and trippy things a protagonist does in a story. If readers don’t understand the WHY behind a character’s actions, they won’t connect to him. We’re talking about Motivation, something that wields a lot of power in any story. It is the thread that weaves through a protagonist’s every thought, decision, choice and action. It propels him forward in every scene.
Because of this, the question, What does my character want? should always be in the front of your mind as you write. More importantly, as the author, you should always know the answer.
Outer Motivation – THE BIG GOAL (What does your character want?)
Your character must have a goal of some kind, something they are aiming to achieve. It might be to win a prestigious award, to save one’s daughter from kidnappers, or to leave an abusive husband and start a new life. Whatever goal you choose, it should be WORTHY. The reader should understand why this goal is important to the hero or heroine, and believe they deserve to achieve it.
Inner Motivation – UNFULFILLED NEEDS (Why does the protagonist want to achieve this particular goal?)
Fiction should be a mirror of real life, and in the real world, HUMAN NEEDS DRIVE BEHAVIOR. Yes, for you psychology majors, I am talking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. Physical needs, safety and security, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization are all part of what it is to be human.
If you take one of these needs away, once the lack is felt strongly enough, a person will be DRIVEN to gain it back. The need becomes so acute it can no longer be ignored–it is a hole that must be filled.
If someone was threatening your family (safety and security) what might you do to keep loved ones safe? If each day you went to a workplace where you were treated poorly by your boss (esteem), how long until you decide to look for a new job? These needs are real for us, and so they should be real for our characters. Ask yourself what is missing from your character’s life. Why do they feel incomplete? The story becomes their journey to fill this lack.
Outer Conflict – THE WHO or WHAT (that stands in the way of your hero achieving his goal)
If your story has an antagonist or villain, you want to spend some solid time thinking about who they are, why they’re standing in the hero’s way, and what motivates them to do what they do.
The reason is simple…the stronger your antagonist is, the harder your hero must work to defeat him. This also means the desire of achieving the goal must outweigh any hardship you throw at your hero, otherwise he’ll give up. Quit. And if he does, you’ll have a Tragedy on your hands, not the most popular ending.
Our job as authors is to challenge our heroes, and create stakes high enough that quitting isn’t an option. Often this means personalizing the stakes, because few people willingly put their head in an oven. So make failure not an option. Give failure a steep price.
The problem is that with most stories, to fight and win, your character must change. And change is hard. Change is something most people avoid, and why? Because it means taking an honest look within and seeing one’s own flaws. It means feeling vulnerable…something most of us seek to avoid. This leads us to one of the biggest cornerstones of Character Arc.
Inner Conflict – The STRUGGLE OVER CHANGE (an internal battle between fear and desire, of staying chained to the past or to seek the future)
To achieve a big goal, it makes sense that a person has to apply themselves and attack it from a place of strength, right? Getting to that high position is never easy, not in real life, or in the fictional world. In a novel, the protagonist has to see himself objectively, and then be willing to do a bit of housecleaning.
What do I mean by that?
Characters, like people, bury pain. Emotional wounds, fears, and vulnerability are all shoved down deep, and emotional armor donned. No one wants to feel weak, and when someone takes an emotional hit after a negative experience, this is exactly what happens. They feel WEAK. Vulnerable.
The Birth of Flaws
What is emotional armor? Character Flaws. Behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that a character adopts as a result of a wounding event. Why does this happen? Because flaws minimize expectations and keep people (and therefore their ability to cause further hurt) at a distance. But in doing so, flaws create dysfunction, damage the protagonist’s relationships and prevent his personal growth. And due to their negative nature, flaws also tend to get in the way, tripping the character up and prevent him from success.
Facing Down Fear
Fear, a deeply rooted one, is at the heart of any flaw. The character believes that the same painful experience (a wound or wounds) will happen again if unchecked. This belief is a deeply embedded fear that blinds them to all else, including what is holding them back from achievement and happiness.
To move forward, the protagonist must see his flaws for what they are: negative traits that harm, not help. He must choose to shed his flaws and face his fears. By doing this, he gains perspective, and views the past in a new light. Wounds no longer hold power. False beliefs are seen for the untruths they are. The character achieves insight, internal growth, and fortified by this new set of beliefs, is able to see what must be done to move forward. They finally are free from their fear, and are ready to make the changes necessary to achieve their goal.
Why Does Character Arc Hold Such Power Over Readers?
This evolution from “something missing” to “feeling complete” is known as achieving personal growth in real life, which is why readers find Character Arc so compelling to read about. As people, we are all on a path to becoming someone better, someone more whole and complete, but it is a journey of a million steps. Watching a character achieve the very thing we all hope to is very rewarding, don’t you think?
Need a bit more help with some of the pieces of Character Arc? Try these:
When a stimulus signals the brain, the body goes through a logical sequence. Make sure you relate the beats in a logical order.
1. A stimulus triggers the senses. The brain receives the stimulus instantaneously. It can be something your character hears, intuits, sees, smells, tastes, or touches.
2. The body has an involuntary response that takes a nanosecond. The limbic system evaluates the stimulus and sends chemicals racing through the body as neurons fire, depending on its evaluation of whether the stimulus is negative, positive, or neutral. The brain decides if there is a potential threat or reward.
3. The response triggers a reflexive action.
4. The brain then regains control over the body and makes a conscious decision about how to proceed.
A posited theory is that everyone we meet (and everything we come across) leaves a neural imprint. The brain decides if a person, place, or thing is a friend or foe and whether the next encounter will be negative or positive. The composite images are stored in an easily accessed file folder for comparison. How much a person or thing resembles the positive or negative composites determines how likely you are to like or dislike a new person, place, or thing when you encounter it. It decides whether snakes are lovely or lethal, whether a physical action is comforting or threatening, and whether an action you take is likely to result in reward or punishment.
It compares faces and decides that your new boss looks a lot like the girl you liked in elementary school. Your initial reaction is positive. She may turn out to be perfectly awful.
The brain makes these split-second decisions every second of every day. It is important to understand this process as you write, but it's only necessary to zero in on this part of the response at the most critical turning points of your story.
Next, the body reacts involuntarily to the stimulus. It recoils or reaches out. It startles or is soothed. A character gasps, coughs, sneezes, laughs, or screams. This reaction is embedded deep within the animal part of the brain. It is governed by sheer instinct and raw emotion. It is the fight or flight response at play. His pulse, breathing, and muscles react. His skin erupts in chills. His mouth goes dry. The character is not speaking or moving yet. He flinches, blinks, tenses, and displays a micro-expression.
What happens next depends on how the brain filters the stimulus through the character's conditioning, personality, and emotional connection to the stimulus. It tests the emotion of the moment. The brain decides to override or reinforce the initial involuntary response. If the stimulus is a threat from a comforting person, it causes dissonance. The same is true if the loving gesture is issued from a threatening stimulus. Dick's impulse may be to hug someone. It is awkward when that someone pulls away from it.
Finally, the character's conscious mind takes over and is free to decide which course of action to take next. The body recovers from the initial reflex. It overcomes the muscle memory and moves with intention. Conscious control over his breathing, pulse, and muscles is restored. Dick moves deliberately forward or backward and speaks. He alters his breathing, flexes his trembling knees, or relaxes his tightened gut and jaw. He smiles and shakes hands or fake smiles and avoids shaking hands.
If Dick has been startled, shocked, or wounded, his body recovers. Writers often forget to mention this step of the process. His system returns to normal once the threat has passed. Make sure you show the recovery after a major impact.
Not every encounter needs to reveal every beat. Use more beats when the tension is high, less when the tension is low. Use extreme actions and reactions sparingly. The verbal camera should zoom in on the mechanics during critical parts and zoom out for the noncritical parts.
Next time we will discuss distance and touching. How close is too close?
The practice of identifying liars has become an art as well as a science. There are multitudes of books, reams of research, and several television shows based on it. Dr. Paul Eckman's work is well worth reading. The show Lie to Me is well worth watching to learn more.
Whether someone is lying or honest is broadly characterized by how expansive or contractive his body language is. There may be master criminals, soulless sociopaths, trained spies, or sage sleuths who can outsmart everyone. For the rest, the normal rules governing behavior apply.
Someone who is telling the truth goes on the offensive. He is forward moving, expansive, broad gesturing, and offers distinct answers with I and me. He meets your gaze full on. His body gravitates toward yours in an attempt to be seen and understood and to connect. He gives the right amount of detail. He discusses the situation until you believe him. His story is explicit and consistent.
He may be angry at being falsely accused, or having his honor questioned, but he does not feel guilty. He mirrors your posture. He talks expansively with his hands, starting the gesture before the words. He is relaxed and his smile engages other facial muscles. He points to himself and places his open hand on his chest. He is not afraid of close scrutiny.
The exception is when an honest person grows anxious when he isn’t believed, especially in a situation where he feels unsafe. The situation may trigger anxiety responses just as in someone who isn't honest. He may flush with fury. A character that has an itch somewhere it's inappropriate to scratch isn't necessarily being deceptive. His underwear may not be where it belongs, or he may have a health problem that makes him itch everywhere. There are illnesses that trigger lip biting. Those gestures alone are not proof that someone is lying.
Someone who is lying goes on the defensive. He retracts and caves inward. He forces the gesture after the words. He rambles and mumbles and doesn't give direct answers. His smile never reaches his eyes. He gives shorter answers and changes the topic. He rarely uses I and me. His information is inconsistent. He averts his gaze. He may withhold details or gush with too much detail. It's more in the quality of what he says and what he didn’t say. He answers a question with a question. He wants to escape the interrogation as soon as possible. His voice pitch rises because he is anxious. He blinks, licks his lips, and maintains poor eye contact. He gestures with palms up in a plea.
He may rub or scratch his nose, neck, or jaw. The stress makes him itch, sweat, and flush. He may stammer and mess up his words. He may hold his head still. His limbs feel wooden. He may lean forward, resting his elbows on a table or his knees, anything to make his body smaller. He places a barrier between you. He may slide an object between you or step behind a chair.
Liars often say honestly, believe me, or I'm telling the truth. He may be smiling, but inside he is sweating. His brain races to come up with the details it lacks in answer to your questions. It is said that a liar doesn't memorize the story backwards, so asking him to repeat the information regressively trips him up.
For example, Dick asks Jane where she has been all day. She replies that she went to the hairdressers, the department store, Starbucks for a coffee, to the mall, and finally the grocery store. This answer displays the too much information rule. Most women would say, "I had my hair done and went shopping."
If Dick asks questions like, “So, when did you go to Starbucks?" Jane has to think hard about what she just made up. Did she say she stopped at Starbucks before or after department store? If your teen gives you a list, ask him to repeat it backwards. I bet he can't.
Jane might give Dick a long list if he makes the mistake of saying, "So, what have you done all day?" Those are fighting words and Jane may respond with a laundry list of the household chores, child-centered activities, and errands she accomplished in the space of eight hours punctuated by slamming drawers or cabinet doors, and a tone that drips acid. She isn't lying.
I hope you've enjoyed our lessons on body language. Now, go revise! If you want more hints on how check out Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers.
For every action there is a reaction. A story obstacle comes along that requires your character to say or do something in response. What are the options?
Dick can’t change other people or the obstacle presented, but he can change his response to them.
If Jane is behaving inappropriately, Dick doesn’t have to give in. He can be firm and say ‘no’ or call her on her shenanigans. Jane is then forced to change her tactics because of Dick’s response.
This could be the resolution to your protagonist’s personal dilemma. Your protagonist could find the strength to change his responses to a person or situation. It can function at the scene level in any genre and the overall story problem level in a Literary tale.
If Dick wants something, he might start off with bribes. He could beg. If that doesn’t work, he’ll resort to threats. This isn’t just the method of an antagonist. It can be the methodology of any character at any point in the story.
Dick could try cajoling Jane into going to a restaurant because he has a surprise party planned. If she refuses, he might promise to do something she really wants to do. If Jane still says no, he might threaten to not do something she needs him to do. The motivation is benevolent rather than malign, but the tactics are the same.
The same motivators can work against a scene goal.
Sally might resist the goal because to do so results in a threat to her safety or to the safety of someone she cares about.
There are times when it is healthy to say no. If Sally lives in a gang-infested neighborhood and wants to help the police or a friend, it might mean death or harm to her friends or family. Some characters would choose to do the right thing despite the consequences. Sally might give into her fears and refuse in order to protect herself or others. She may truly want to help the police, or hinder the antagonist, but the personal cost is so high she can’t.
Sometimes the best response is no response. No matter how hard someone tries to coerce your protagonist into doing, saying, or believing something, Dick can refuse to budge. He can walk away instead of arguing or reacting. This can extend the tension because the reader knows that the character will have to deal with the request another time. How many times will Dick be able to ignore the request?
Sometimes people change in response to your reaction to them. If Dick has a nagging, hysterical mother or spouse, he can finally learn to stand up to them and assert his independence. Dick changes the parameters of the relationship by asserting boundaries. The other person must change to accommodate the new rules or break off the relationship.
What if Dick is confronted with a toxic friend, family member, or lover who will never change? Dick can’t make them want help or make them better. He may have to walk away to preserve himself. It is a heart-rending choice.
By offering a variety of obstacles and responses, you keep the story flowing. Whether you script choppy rapids or a slow, sweet stream, if your reader enjoys the ride, you’ll earn a new fan.
I recently read a Huff Post psychology piece on Turning Negative Emotions Into Your Greatest Advantage and immediately saw how this could also apply to our characters. Feel free to follow the link and read, but if you’re short on time, the rundown is this: negative emotions are not all bad. In fact, they are necessary to the human experience, and can spark a shift that leads to self growth.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s look at what a mirror moment is.
Mirror Moment: a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).
If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.
Jim actually describes the Mirror Moment so much better than I can HERE, but do your writing a BIG FAVOR and also snag a copy of this book. (It’s a short read and will absolutely help you strengthen the character’s arc in your story!)
To see how the two tie together, let’s explore what leads to this essential “mirror moment.” Your hero is taking stock of his situation, realizing he has two choices: stubbornly continue on unchanged and hope for the best, or move forward differently, becoming something more.
The big question: what is the catalyst? What causes him to take stock of the situation? What causes his self-reflection?
The answer is not surprising: EMOTION. Something the character FEELS causes him to stop, look within, and make a choice.
Let’s assume this isn’t a tragedy. If this moment had a math formula, it would look something like this:
Emotion + look within = change
So what type of emotions are the best fit to encourage this necessary shift toward change? And are they positive emotions, or negative ones? Let’s experiment!
Happiness is contentment, a feeling of extreme well being. If one feels good about themselves and where they are at, it doesn’t encourage a strong desire for change, does it?
Gratitude + a look within
Gratitude is thankfulness, an appreciation for others and what one has. Because again, gratitude creates contentment, feeling “full” and thankful, it doesn’t make the best catalyst for change. However, if you were to pair it with something like relief (such as being given a second chance), then gratitude over being spared something negative could lead to resolving to change.
Excitement + a look within
Excitement is the feeling of being energized to the point one feels compelled to act. On the outside, this looks like a good candidate for change, but it depends on the type of excitement. Is the “high” a character feels something that distracts them from self reflection (such as being caught up in the experience of a rock concert) or does it inspire (such as the thrill of meeting one’s sports hero in person)? If one’s excitement propels one to want to become something better, then change can be achieved.
Satisfaction + a look within
Satisfaction is a feeling of contentment in a nutshell. It is feeling whole and complete. As such, looking within while satisfied likely won’t lead to a desire to change anything–in fact it might do just the opposite: encourage the character to remain the same.
Fear is the expectation of threat or danger. Feeling afraid is very uncomfortable, something almost all people wish to avoid. Some even try to make deals with the powers that be, so deep is their desperation: if I win this hand, I’ll give up gambling, I swear. So, combining this emotion with some self reflection could definitely create the desire to change.
Frustration + a look within
Feeling stymied or hemmed in is something all people are familiar with and few can tolerate for long. By its very nature, frustration sends the brain on a search for change: how can I fix this? How can I become better/more skilled/adapt? How can I succeed?
Characters who are frustrated are eager to look within for answers.
Embarrassment + a look within
Embarrassment is another emotion that is very adept at making characters uncomfortable. Self-conscious discomfort is something all usually avoid because it triggers vulnerability. When one feels embarrassed, it is easy to look within and feel the desire to make a change so this experience is not repeated.
Shame + a look within
Disgrace isn’t pretty. When a person knows they have done something improper or dishonorable, it hurts. Shame creates the desire to rewind the clock so one can make a different choice or decision that does not lead to this same situation. It allows the character to focus on their shortcomings without rose-colored glasses, and fast tracks a deep need for change.
* ~ * ~ *
These are only a sampling of emotions, but the exercise above suggests it might be easier to bring about this mirror moment through negative emotions. But, does this mean all positive emotions don’t lead to change while all negative ones do? Not at all!
Love + a look within could create a desire to become more worthy in the eyes of loved ones. And emotions such as Denial or Contempt, while negative, both resist the idea of change. Denial + a look within, simply because one is not yet in a place where they can see truth. Contempt + a look within, because one is focused on the faults of others, not on one’s own possible shortcomings. Overall however, negative emotions seem to be the ones best suited to lead to that mirror moment and epiphany that one must change or become stronger and more skilled in order to succeed.
So there you have it–when you’re working on this critical moment in your story when your character realizes change is needed, think carefully about which emotion might best lead to this necessary internal reflection and change.
Super pleased to welcome Writing Coach MJ Bush today. I am a huge fan of her blog, Writing Geekery…if you don’t yet have this site on your writing resource roster, make it happen! (Trust me, you don’t want to miss any of her articles because they contain unique and valuable insight into character arc and story structure.)
MJ’s tackling REGRET, which is key to a well developed character arc. Regret can destroy a person, but it can also motivate, spurring a character to take action when they reach the point where fears, missed opportunities and poor choices lead to unbearable fulfillment and dissatisfaction. Great stuff here on how to use it in your hero’s arc, so please read on!
Regret is a hard motive to wrangle. Shallowness creeps in because actions seem simplistic or pasted on if you don’t establish realism and reader empathy.
Even if your reader wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly why it doesn’t seem realistic now, they’ll know realism when you use it.
And boy, can you use regret to change your character’s life in interesting ways. PLUS I’ve got some tips on creating emotional realism. Read to the end for my gift, a free report on arcs born from regret.
First, let’s clarify what regret is.
It’s an indirect motivator. For example, it can fuel a desire to right wrongs, or a fear that the same thing will happen again.
It’s grieving for what could have been. Even if there was nothing you could have done.
But it also encompasses guilt, remorse, and contrition.
Basic regret is wishing things could have been another way, guilt is blaming yourself, remorse is wishing to make amends, and contrition is acting to make amends.
So, let’s look at five realistic ways regret can affect your character.
1. Looking Ahead Too Intently
Anticipated regret is stronger than the regret itself.
Your character might be disproportionately afraid of missing out, and realize later that it wasn’t so bad. The arc from fear to relief is an especially great option for supporting characters.
►► Avery had a ticket to leave on the next ship out, headed for one of the newly terraformed colonies, but he cut it too close and he can’t get everything ready in time. He transfered to a later launch, had more time to say goodbye, and realized that it was ultimately a good experience.
2. But It’s Not the Same!
This one applies when your character has missed an opportunity. The psychological phenomenon is called inaction inertia. One missed opportunity increases the likelihood of missing another, wishing it was as good as the first.
So make sure your character has a good strong push to take a second opportunity. Or let them pass up the second only to realize that they will really regret it if they miss a third.
…If you want them to take it.
►► Avery landed on his new planetary home and immediately found a great house, but decided to check out the possibilities. Nothing compared, but when he went back, it’d been sold. Later that week, he found another great place but he decided that the first house was his dream home and this other house just wouldn’t cut it.
Desperate after realizing that he should have taken it, he gave up and took the next livable place.
It’s possible to learn to see the shame, the guilt, and the situations as trials intended to give you strength. And when your character learns to adopt this worldview, his entire outlook and self-concept will shift.
He will see himself as product of adversity, not the victim of it.
Or you can let one character wallow while another improves. I do like my foils.
►► Before moving to the stars, Avery always saw himself as a victim of his circumstances. His poor upbringing, the demeaning jobs, even the dead-end romantic relationships all fed the idea that the world was against him. When he started to realize that those things made him stronger, he started tackling bigger dreams and challenges.
Until, finally, he stepped on that ship.
4. Comparing Hurts Our Health
As this article states, social comparison is a coping mechanism for regret. And the interesting thing is that it can have an effect on the character’s health.
It’s not just artistic license that has characters getting sick when they compare themselves unfavorably with others. Who knew?
►► Avery’s best friend Daniel slowly wasted away on Earth, alternately railing against the world and castigating himself for not stepping up like Avery.
5. Aged Regret = Different Flavor
We’re likely to regret actions in the short term, but in the long term it’s the things we didn’t do that get us down.
This can make a nice foil, with a younger character regretting an action and an older character regretting an “omission.” Or you can have a character arc from one to the other in the space of the story.
►► Years later, Avery forgot the decision to pass up the second house. Instead, he regretted not encouraging Daniel to see his own strength.
Show It Better Than a Movie
There’s more to regret than arcs and motivations. It’s an emotion, and as an author you need to treat it like one.
You see yourself as having lost something, or the idea of something that is profoundly meaningful to you, and the experience is every bit as real as suffering after any kind of traumatic event. – Suzanne Lachmann, Psy.D.
Your job is to show that grief. The resulting actions aren’t enough. Words spoken or thought aren’t enough.
You have to show a reaction to the pain.
Give it some screen time.
Let it sink in.
It’s Time to Give Your Characters the Depth They Deserve
You’ve got the tools to show your character’s regret, and to make it a realistically integral part of their actions and emotions. Especially if you have The Emotion Thesaurus.
MJ Bush is The Analytical Creative. Her writing advice steps back to take in the whole picture, then dives in to grab the pearls of usable detail. She’s the founder of Writingeekery.com and a full time fiction coach, editor, and writer.
One of the struggles that comes with writing is when a character feels vulnerable and so tries to hide their emotions as a result. Fear of emotional pain, a lack of trust in others, instinct, or protecting one’s reputation are all reasons he or she might repress what’s going on inside them. After all, people do this in real life, and so it makes sense that our characters will too. Protecting oneself from feeling exposed is as normal as it gets.
But where does that leave writers who STILL have to show these hidden emotions to the reader (and possibly other characters in the scene)?
The answer is a “TELL”– a subtle, bodily response or micro gesture that a character has little or no control over.
No matter how hard we try, our bodies are emotional mirrors, and can give our true feelings away. We can force hands to unknot, fake nonchalance, smile when we don’t mean it and lie as needed. However, to the trained eye, TELLS will leak through:a rushed voice. An off-pitch laugh. Hands that fiddle and smooth. Self-soothing touches to comfort. Sweating.
For a story to have emotional range, our characters will naturally hide what they feel at some point, and when they do, the writer must be ready. Readers will be primed for an emotional response by the scene’s build up, and will be on the lookout for a character’s body language cues and tells.
Here is a list of possible TELLS that will convey to readers that more is going on with your Protagonist than it seems:
A voice that breaks, drops or raises in pitch; a change in speech patterns
Micro hesitations (delayed speech, throat clearing, slow reaction time) showing a lack of commitment
A forced smile, laugh or verbally agreeing/disagreeing in a way that does not seem genuine
Cancelling gestures (smiling but stepping back; saying No but reaching out, etc.)
Hands that fiddle with items, clothing and jewellery
Stiff posture and movements; remaining TOO still and composed
Rushing (the flight instinct kicking in) or making excuses to leave or avoid a situation
A lack of eye contact; purposefully ignoring someone or something
Closed body posture (body shielding, arms crossing chest, using the hair to hide the face, etc.)
Sweating or trembling, a tautness in the muscles or jaw line
Smaller gestures of the emotion ‘leaking out’ (see The Emotion Thesaurus for ideas that match each emotion)
Growing inanimate and contributing less to conversation
Verbal responses that seem to have double meanings; sarcasm
Attempting to intimidate others into dropping a subject
Overreacting to something said or done in jest
Increasing one’s personal space ( withdrawing from a group, sitting alone, etc.)
Tightness around the eyes or mouth (belying the strain of keeping emotion under wraps)
Hiding one’s hands in some way
Sometimes a writer can let the character’s true thoughts leak out and this can help show the reader what’s really being felt. But this only works if the character happens to be the Point Of View Character. The rest of the time, it comes down to micro body language and body tells that are hard, if not impossible, to control.
Have you used any of these tells to show the reader or other characters in the scene that something is wrong? What tells do you notice most in real life as you read the body language of those around you? (These real life interactions can be gold mines for fresh body language cues to apply to your characters!)
TIP 2.0:Becca has a great post onHidden Emotionsas well, and how “Acting Normal” might be the go-to expressive that gets hidden emotions across to the reader, while potentially leaving other characters in the dark.
But both Children of Men and Snowpiercer come crashing down to almost identical final moments. When the smoke clears and the countless bodies are carted off, what we’re left with is the same take-away: Bearded white dude saves humanity, in both cases represented by a woman and a child of color, both helpless and in need of saving, at the cost of his own life.
Basically, Older says, Snowpiercer and Children of Men are white savior movies. He proposes an alternative: "Imagine if the desperate rebels paused and elevated Tanya to leadership instead of Curtis. Snowpiercer would’ve become something truly subversive, a story some of us have been trying to tell for a very long time."
I think Snowpiercer is already pretty darn subversive, so I would replace the "truly" there with "even more", and I wouldn't call Yona in Snowpiercer helpless, really (she's smart and even seems to have some super powers). But yes, Snowpiercer could have offered an alternative to white supremacy (both the structural white supremacy of the train and the apparently internalized and patriarchal white supremacy of the rebels) instead of something closer to a satire of white supremacy ending in its own destruction — a futile destruction if you consider the likelihood of Yona and Tim's survival or the likelihood that some disease would kill off their ancestors. (For more along this line, and for thoughts on the implications of the film's take on revolutionary politics, and much else, see Aaron Bady's "Snowpiercer Thinkpiece".) It could have been a more deeply subversive, even utopian movie. It is not.
But as a savior, Curtis is pretty crappy. He's wrong about the revolution, most of the tailenders he's trying to liberate end up dead, and though he may have sacrificed his life for a woman and boy, the woman and boy are in all likelihood only going to outlive him by a day or two at most. And it's not like he set out to sacrifice his life for them. Nam and Yona caused the explosion. He just chose, along with Wilford, to see if his body might shield Yona and Tim's bodies from the blast. If you're going to die, you might as well make your death a potentially useful one, and that's what he does.
I've already proposed one way of thinking about the racial politics of the ending, and this is at least somewhat at odds with Older's reading, but I like texts that can be interpreted richly, and it's entirely likely that soon I'll think my first take was wrong. I like thinking about the lineage of white savior movies, because when I do, they give me a little bit more hope for progress than the ending of Snowpiercer does, because if we can see such stories as white supremacy talking about itself, then it's having a crisis of confidence and thinks it's going to die pretty soon.
(Obviously, it is the nature of white supremacy to make itself the center of conversation, and I am perpetuating that here. White supremacy's representations interest me. But I entirely agree with Older that we need additional storylines. Please please please somebody give Danny Glover the money to make his Toussaint L'Ouverture movie, for instance!)
There are some noticeable differences between the ending of Snowpiercer and the ending of Children of Men, but before getting to those, I want to bring up one other white savior movie, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, which I once called "a white savior movie that questions the whole idea of a white savior movie, or, at least, that wants to put an end to itself."
One of the things that I think is important to consider when viewing a white savior movie is its desired emotional effect. Where does it want the audience's sympathies to fall? What does the film seem to want us to feel, and how? In a classic white savior movie — think Dances with Wolves or The Blind Side or [insert your own title here] — the white savior becomes ennobled through their encounter with the non-white supporting character(s). They learn to be more caring, less bigoted, etc. (Yay, white people can be better! Hooray for White Guy 2.0!) The journey is fundamentally that of the white protagonist, and the audience's greatest interest should be in the white character. (This is one of the things I thought was so excellent about 12 Years a Slave, which is in the end, yes, literally a white savior movie — without Bass [Brad Pitt], Solomon Northup might never have been freed — but not at all about the redemption of white people. But that's tangential to this discussion...)
Though Gran Torino is at least partly about the end of the old white savior, it nonetheless sticks with the redemption narrative. The future is given to nonwhite characters, and those characters are shown to be the closest to a traditional (conservative) sense of American values, but grumpy old racist Walt ends up not just learning to care deeply for people he'd previously spurned, but sacrificing himself for them. And not just any sacrifice. He lands on the ground with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross. Like Snowpiercer, Gran Torino proposes that the future will not be white, but in Gran Torino the white savior is still pretty awesome, even if he's a relic.
In Children of Men, Theo is much less heroic than Walt. He's pointedly unheroic in his presentation. But his character arc is toward heroism — through helping Kee, he discovers something to live for, something to fight for, and he becomes somebody worth shedding a tear for when he dies. For me, it's not as big a tear as Gran Torino seems to want us to shed for Walt, but that's partly because it's not hard to imagine Theo going back to being a cynical or apathetic drunk even if he lived. Walt's death feels momentous, like a tremendous (if necessary) loss; Theo's death is sad for a moment, poignant more than devastating.
With Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón did make interesting changes to counter the whiteness of the source material (a P.D. James novel), but the character we follow from beginning to end is, indeed, a white guy who saves a pregnant black woman and her child. Here, though, Kee is, like Thao and Sue in Gran Torino, a kind of representative of the future — if humanity is to survive, it's surviving because of a black woman, and the white savior is gone from the picture. (Although everyone we see on the Tomorrow ship that picks her up looks white, so who knows what will happen later...)
Snowpiercer also kills off the white savior(s) and proposes that the future of humanity does not lie with white people, but here the journey of the white savior is even less heroic than that of Walt or Theo. At least Walt and Theo are successful saviors.
Curtis's journey is in many ways the opposite of Walt's and Theo's. Walt and Theo begin cynical (or worse) and come to see the value in being a savior. We end up feeling good about them, and proud of them for their sacrifices. Curtis starts out at 2nd in command of the revolution (though Gilliam repeatedly suggests that Curtis is really in charge, even if Curtis doesn't want to face that fact) and ends up finding out that the revolution was a sham and that his actions all served to help Wilford's overall goals. Curtis has helped lead everyone he most cares into death for an illusion. Oops.
Do we shed a tear for Curtis?
I don't know about you, but I certainly didn't. Sure, there was the monologue toward the end where he talks about how he became a savage and then couldn't cut his arm off, etc., but it's important to remember what comes next: Nam's deflating reaction — Curtis clearly thought he was sharing his deepest, darkest secret, and Nam's response was little more than, "Uh huh." He's not bowing down to this white savior, not giving in to his emotional tug.
Curtis was interesting as a protagonist, as a figure to carry the force of the action, but my own emotional commitment was far more toward Nam, Tanya, Yona, and then Tim. (Tanya's death was, for me, the most affecting.) Curtis just isn't a very interesting character; he's a foil for the other characters and a device to get the story out. The relatively bland main character is an old tradition in narrative, and it serves a similar function to a straight man in comedy. So Curtis's death is not a moment that is, for me at least, more powerful than the deaths of so many other people on the train. It's easy for my plot interest to shift to Yona and Tim because that's where my affectual interest has been all along.
Gran Torino gives us the white savior who wants to end all white saviors, but it wants to us to pause and feel real sorrow for his death. Children of Men gives us an unheroic white savior who finds some shreds of heroism and dies to save the (at-least-partially) nonwhite future; we end up sort of sad for him, but the stronger emotion is likely happiness that Kee and her child lived. Snowpiercer gives us a white savior seeking the wrong revolution, ending up a savior as much by accident as intent, and the movie drains much of the emotional power from the savior figure, while proposing that if humanity has any future (unlikely), its future isn't one with white people in it.
Writing compelling emotional moments is the lifeblood of any story and the key to building a relationship between characters and readers. Yet steering clear of the show-don’t-tell pitfalls requires practice and skill. I’m reposting this from where it originally appeared at Romance University to shed light on three scenarios that challenge writers as they search for the right balance of emotional description.
Telling is a big issue, especially when writers are still getting to know their characters. Often they do not yet have enough insight into the hero’s personality and their motivation to really be able to describe how they feel in a unique way. Instead of using a vivid and authentic mix of body language, thoughts, dialogue and visceral sensations, writers convey emotion in broad, telling strokes:
Bill had to steel himself emotionally before entering the church. He’d managed to avoid his family for seven years, but his father’s funeral wasn’t something he could blow off. Anger and jealousy welled inside him as he thought of his two older brothers, the ones who always impressed Dad by being just like him: athletic, manly, hard. Now he would have to face them, and hear once again how he was a failure, a disappointment, an abomination that should have done the world a favor and hung himself from the Jackson family tree.
What’s wrong with this passage?
While the above alludes to an unhealthy relationship between brothers and conveys that Bill is the family misfit, the emotions are TOLD to the reader.
Bill had to steel himself emotionally… What does that look like? Does he sneak a slug of whiskey in his car before going in? Shuffle around on the church step, tugging at his starched cuffs? Something else? With emotion, the reader should always get a clear image of how the character is expressing their feelings.
Anger and jealousy welled inside him… This again is telling, simply by naming the emotions. What does that anger and jealousy feel like? Is his pulse throbbing so loud he can barely think? Are his thoughts boiling with brotherly slurs that show his jealousy: dad’s golden children, his perfect prodigy, etc.Does his chest feel stuffed full of broken glass, and with each thrum of the church organ, the pain drives itself deeper?
Showing and Telling
Another common snag is showing the character’s feelings (thoughts, actions, body language, visceral sensations, etc.) but then adding some telling just to make sure the reader ‘got it.’ This often happens when a writer doesn’t have confidence in their own abilities to get emotion across to the reader, or they question whether they’ve shown the character’s feelings strongly enough for the situation.
Dean Harlow finally called Tammy’s name and Lacy’s breath hitched. Her daughter crossed the stage in her rich purple robe, smiling and thrusting her arm out for the customary handshake. Warmth blurred Lacy’s vision and she swiped at the tears, unwilling to miss a second of the graduation ceremony. Her calloused fingers scraped beneath her eyelids, a reminder of long hours at the laundry, all to ensure Tammy would have opportunities she herself never did.
When her daughter accepted her diploma, Lacy shot out of her seat, clapping and cheering. She had never been so happy and proud in all her life.
What’s wrong with this passage?
Emotion is shown clearly through Lacy’s hitching breath, the warm rush signaling tears, her rapt attention and then finally jumping up to cheer her daughter on. But that last line: She had never been so happy and proud in all her life. This unnecessary explanation of Lacy’s happiness and pride is like hammering a nail long after it’s flush with the board. In the book, Description by Monica Wood, there’s a great rule of writing called RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain. So when it comes to emotion, remember RUE.
Over showing is when a writer gets caught up in the moment and goes too far by showing everything. Too much emotional description can slow the pace of the scene, create purple prose or clichés, and come across as melodramatic.
Finn huddled behind the rusted oil drum, dripping with cold sweat as she tried to control her loud, rasping breath. The sound of Alex scraping the crowbar along the warehouse’s cement floor turned her heart into a jackhammer. A scream built up in her throat and she clamped her teeth tight, converting it into a nearly soundless whimper. Her body trembled and shuddered in the dark, and a cascade of thoughts piled up like shoreline debris– the odd things he said, the strange gifts and creepy poems, his interest in seeing blood—why didn’t these things didn’t send off air raid sirens in her head before tonight?
What’s wrong with this passage?
In some ways, this is a great moment showing fear. Body language, thoughts and visceral sensations all work to bring about intensity, but because there is so much of it, it feels overblown. Emotion doesn’t just build here…it roars. As a result, clichés form (the jackhammer heartbeat) and purple prose emerges from too many fanciful ideas (cascading thoughts, shoreline debris, air raid sirens, etc.) The combination of too much description creates the flavor of melodrama, which can cause the reader to disengage. Showing is great, but in moderation. Sometimes an author can say more with less.
Getting the right balance of emotion on the page isn’t easy, so I hope this helps! And if you would like to read about these common problems in more detail (or the other issues with writing emotion), you can find in depth information in the “Look Inside” sample of The Emotion Thesaurus at Amazon. Feel free to take a peek!
Also, Becca’s at Rebecca Lyndon’s blog today talking about characterization techniques writers can steal borrow from the stellar cast of Finding Nemo. If you’ve got time, please stop by and say hello!
If writing the Positive Trait & Negative Trait Thesaurus books have taught me anything, it is that compelling characters are neither good nor bad, perfect or fundamentally flawed.
Instead, they are all of these things. Each has a set of good, admirable qualities, even while displaying frustrating or off-putting flaws. They have strengths and weaknesses in different areas, making them both skilled and inept at the same time. But that’s the point, isn’t it? The best characters are realistic and believable because they are just like real people. Like you or I. They have a balance of positive and negatives that give them a wholly unique viewpoint, attitude, belief system and personality.
Some writers want to create characters that ONLY have the best qualities, ones that prove they are good human beings that readers will admire and root for. They find it easy to create a blend of traits like loyalty, helpfulness, intelligence and determination, forming a true hero that can handle anything. But when it comes to choosing flaws, they pull their punches, worried that if they add a trait like selfishness, perfectionism, or impulsiveness, readers will view them as unlikeable.
Other writers EMBRACE the flawed character. They pile up flaws, forged by a hard past filled with emotional wounds that refuse to heal. They add layers of negative traits like suspicious, mistrustful and erratic, all carefully planned around an elaborate backstory that supports the necessity of emotional armor (flaws) that make them who they are.
But when it comes to admirable traits, they struggle. What positive traits would logically survive such a painful past? If say, the character was a victim of horrible abuse and to cope, they became a mistrustful, anti social liar, how can they also be friendly or kind? How can they logically be generous or carefree while harboring such deep flaws?
These are not simple questions to answer. Character creation, when done well, is not an easy process. Too many flaws (or even choosing the wrong type of flaw), and a character becomes unlikeable. Too many positive attributes, and they come across as altruistic, unrealistic or even (yawn) boring. So how can we achieve balance?
Understand Who and What Shaped Your Character
Just like every one of us, your character has a past. And while yes, backstory turmoil and pain should be exploited to create conflict and tension in the present, there is always good mixed with bad. In real life, the good experiences (and people) are what keep us going no matter how bad it gets. So think about your character’s positive experiences and past influences along with negative ones as you dig around in their backstory. Understand what the character learned from both past trials and successes, and how each lesson will help to shape his personality.
Uncover Your Character’s Moral Center
Every character has a set of moral beliefs, even the villain. Think deeply about the moral code your character lives by, and what lines he will not cross. (HINT: the “why” of moral choices will be embedded in his backstory, and who/what helped shaped his view of the world.) Morals are the pulsing heart of motivation and action, so determine your character’s sense of right and wrong. (Read more about determining your characters morality HERE.)
Prod His Wound to See What Hurts
Nothing modifies behavior like pain, so understanding what deep emotional wounds your character carries is key to knowing what he also yearns for more than anything (Acceptance? Love? Safety? Freedom?) This wound and the fear that it can happen again is what causes deep flaws to form. They act as “false protection” to keep the hurt from reoccurring, and usually hold people at a distance. Here’s a helpful list of Common Wound Themes.
For example, a character who experienced rejection might close himself off from potential lovers because of his fear of being rejected again. How would flaws “help” him by pushing women away? Is he arrogant? Promiscuous? Uncommunicative? Dishonest?
And what attribute, if nourished, might grow strong enough to vanquish these flaws that hold him back from connection? Respectfulness? Honor? Loyalty? Empathy? Finding a major flaw’s opposite is the pathway to balance & resolving Character Arc through personal growth.
Give All Characters The Chance for Redemption
Some characters are intentionally unbalanced. If you have a character who leans one way more than the other (such as a villain or anti hero) by story necessity, then make sure you also build in something that suggests no matter how flawed or terrible, there is a chance they can change or be redeemed.
Every negative has a positive, and no matter how dark or skewed a character’s view is, or what he feels he’s better without, there will always be a flicker of light that can help him find his way back to becoming whole and complete. Show this to readers, be it a motive that is pure, a relationship with someone that is on some level healthy and good, or a positive quality that is admirable.
Balancing your character’s positive and negative sides means some deep brainstorming! If it helps, here are some more ideas on how to plan a character before you start writing.
The connection between two characters is one of the most magnetic forces in storytelling, especially in romance novels.
Whether they welcome the relationship, fight it, or fall somewhere in between, emotional friction creates an energy that leaves readers anxious to see what will happen next.
Building a compelling romance is not easy, and to make the pairing realistic, a writer must know each character down to their bones, including any past hurts experienced at the hands of others. Pain is a necessary component of any fictional romance. Pain? I know, it sounds crazy. Here’s why.
1) Romance isn’t simple.
You can’t throw two people together and expect pheromones and sex drive do all the work. Readers have expectations that a rocky road lies ahead, because obstacles, suffering and hardship are what makes a romance so satisfying. Characters willing to walk through fire to be together convinces readers they belong with one another. Love is powerful, and there is great beauty in the struggle to obtain what the heart wants most.
To really dig into this, we need to first look at vulnerability in real life. It’s usually cast in a negative light, used in the context that if we don’t avoid it, bad things will happen. If we don’t lock our doors, we’re vulnerable to thieves. If we don’t protect our personal information, people may steal it. Negative experiences teach us to be wary of appearing vulnerable, so we take care in who we trust and what we share. We dress a certain way, act a certain way, hide our hurts and pretend we are strong. Characters, to be realistic, should think and act the same way.
But there is another powerful side of vulnerability: acceptance.
When a person accepts themselves, faults and all, they are able to show their true self to others rather than hide it. This openness, this sharing of one’s innermost feelings and beliefs, is the foundation of all meaningful relationships. Being genuine and honest allows a person to connect with another on a deep level. In romances, characters who are willing to be vulnerable and put their true feelings out there open the gateway to love and intimacy. Without vulnerability, a romantic relationship reads false.
So where does the pain come in?
Being vulnerable is not easy, especially for characters who have been hurt by those they once loved. A character’s past is often a quagmire of painful events making it difficult to let down one’s guard and trust.
For example, if our protagonist was manipulated by an abusive ex-husband, her painful experience with him becomes a wound she can’t forget. She will harden herself, maybe push people away, using emotional armor to keep from being hurt. But this also blocks any new trusting relationships from forming, something she may deeply want. Even when she finds a man to love, it is a difficult process to strip oneself of that armor and be vulnerable enough to forge a strong relationship, risking hurt once more. The character’s desire for the relationship must outweigh her fear of being hurt.
As writers, the need for vulnerability creates a giant obstacle. Why? Because it is our business to create characters who are broken, jaded or struggling in some way. Yet somehow we must show them it’s okay to trust. We must find a way to give them the strength they need to let go of their fears of being hurt and open themselves up to another. The question is, how do we do that?
1) Hone in on the desire for “something more.”
A common need we all have as people (and therefore all characters should have it as well) is the desire for growth and fulfillment. Fears hold a character back and leave them feeling unfulfilled, affecting their happiness. They must realize this, and yearn for something to change. This is the first step.
For example, if your character is having a hard time with trust and openness, have her look within and see the dissatisfaction she feels at not having close relationships, or people to hang out with, trade gossip or confide in. This realization will lead her to probe for what she truly wants (genuine friendship and connection) and create the desire within her to obtain it.
2) Create positive experiences for vulnerability.
There are many times when opening up and being genuine pays off. It feels good to tell someone a secret fear only to find out they understand because they fear it too. Or asking for help and then getting it. Even when we share a problem, we feel the weight of it lift because it’s no longer ours alone. Experiencing love, intimacy, trust, and friendship are all positive experiences that can build a person up, encouraging them to be more open and vulnerable with others.
3) Showing how the past has affected your character but having them see how negativity is holding them back so they can take an important step forward.
In the example above of the woman seeking friendship and connection, it will take time to learn how to trust and feel comfortable sharing details about herself, but if the desire for change is strong enough, it can be achieved.
The path to vulnerability is often the meat of a romance, so it’s important to get a good grasp on it as it plays into the obstacles, hardship and struggles that must be overcome to end with a deep, loving connection.