In fiction, one truth prevails: emotional tension turns pages. A beautifully executed and thoroughly researched story comes across as ho-hum and put-down-able if the characters do not share authentic feelings with the reader, regardless of whether those feelings are fear, love, or rage. Conversely, a loosely plotted, implausible story can be absorbed enthusiastically in a number of hours because the emotional tension is held from page to page. A heart-wrenching book receives high praise from readers because it “stayed with them,” they felt a part of the protagonist’s journey, because they shared all the highs and lows along the way.
So how do we craft a beautiful story AND weave in authentic feelings? Here are a few of my favorite tips. These only scrape the surface, however. Please share your tips in the comments below!
One absolute rule: NEVER say how a character feels. NEVER. If you ever type, “she felt,” or “he felt,” just stop right there and search your heart. If you are thinking about how a character feels or should feel, you aren’t selling it to your reader.
Key words: SEARCH YOUR HEART. As Robert Frost pointed out, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” We must do the dirty business of feeling on behalf of our characters, in order to make those feelings appear on the page. Let them do things and say things that are truly brave, and deeply vulnerable, maybe beyond our own capacity. Let them be heroic in their willingness to give of their hearts.
In order to show how a character is feeling, remember that in real life, approximately 60% of our messages to others are in the form of nonverbal cues. Keep this in mind–show the reader how the character is feeling by their nonverbal behaviors. Then, fill in the final 40% with truly vulnerable dialogue, words the character can only share with the person causing the feelings, be they mad, sad, or glad. What a character is willing to say to one character and not others reveals so much about their relationship, and deepens the characterization.
We must allow our characters to be honest, at least with the reader, if they can’t be with themselves. For example, when a character is hiding from his own feelings, let the reader know better, let the reader see how he really feels, so the reader can keep turning pages to see if a light comes on for the character. Readers WANT the character to grow, and to improve self awareness.
Happy writing. Keep me posted on your progress, and please share your tips for revealing emotions in characters. Let’s connect on Twitter @TheRJLacko