Do you know how your character really feels?

Ocean people

The more I write, the more I realize that recognizing emotional granularity is a skill. Learning to differentiate emotions has a nifty benefit: It’s something you can also use in your personal life.

There are truck loads of research defining the benefits of this skill. Here’s a great New York Times article that explains it really well: Are you in Despair? That’s good.

As the article says:

According to a collection of studies, finely grained, unpleasant feelings allow people to be more agile at regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them.

A useful tool is an emotion list, such as Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel, but there are others. Refer to such lists to consider the subtleties and differences. Such small differences can make a big difference in what you write.

Anticipation or joy? Amazement or surprise?

In describing emotional states, I ask:

  • Is John merely annoyed or swept up in uncontrolled rage?
  • Is Michelle apprehensive, terrified, or someplace in between?
  • Is Catherine feeling admiration or love?

When you recognize the difference between frustration and fury, you react to situations with more skill and self-awareness. Those who haven’t developed this skill (aka, many characters), react in broader emotional strokes. It’s like they only have one note to react to all obstacles: a car horn. They may not even realize that they’re over-reacting. And gosh, it’s exhausting.

There are two levels to an emotion in a scene. First, there’s the character’s emotional reaction to the circumstances. But in addition to that, there’s the primary emotion where they live their life. Some people react to everything with anger. Others, fear. A person whose primary emotion is joy, will react to stress with one set of coping strategies. A person coloured by boredom will react to stress using other strategies.

Emotion Wheel

Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel

Not all characters are lost emotionally.

Emotionally stable characters (aka, wise characters such as wizards, monks or philosophers) inhabit a place beneath the turbulent emotions of life. It is like they are sitting on the bottom of the ocean. They see the emotional waves of the surface, but they recognize them as distractions and don’t pay them any mind. They know that if they go up there, they’ll be caught up in the turbulence. Only when a wise character is the protagonist is she thrown into the waves and just like all characters, works to find her way out of them, back to the serenity of the ocean floor.

The task of “working to find a way out” involves showing how your character develops emotional awareness. As a character grows, they learn how to handle at least one emotion.

STRETCHING EXERCISES

  • When out in public, look at the people around you. Can you tell what they are feeling? What about them is communicating that emotion to you?
  • Ask yourself: What makes one person look angry while another content? Is it the way they walk? What they’re looking at? The furrow in their brow? How they charge forward, full steam ahead?
  • Can you tell what their primary emotion is? The one they automatically go to? What tells you that?
  • For the people who stand out to you, see if you can write a brief description of your findings.

To help you in describing emotions without even leaving your desk, take a look at this Guide to micro expressions.

LOOK IN THE MIRROR

Another way to stretch and grow is to look at your own emotional ups and downs. Here’s a few simple exercises, taken from Zen Buddhist traditions, to help you develop self-awareness:

  • At times throughout your day, try to identify the emotion you’re feeling. If you can, jot them down on a list.
  • Google “emotion list” or visit Wikipedia’s entry, List of Emotions, and see if you can identify where you hang out on the scale.
  • What primary emotion do you think you communicate?
  • Try to pinpoint the emotional range of friends or family.

Goals

Digging into relationships

If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.

A 3-PART SERIES
Part 1: Roles    |    Part 2: Goals     |     Part 3: Emotional bank accounts

Goals = actions

Roles help you think about the relationship. Goals gets your character to think about what they want to make happen in the scenes you write.

To get there ask, “What does Amy want from Fred right now?” What do they need so badly from the other person that they’re willing to take extra steps to get it? That’s their goal for the scene.

Some examples:

  • I want my tasty tart (role) to give me big, sloppy kisses (action).
  • I want my father confessor (role) to listen without judgment and forgive me (action).
  • I want my cheerleader (role)  to slap me on the back and say I’m doing a great job (action).
  • I want my Help desk support (role) to fix all my computer, phone or login issues without getting angry, frustrated or judgmental (action+attitude).

This is what your character wants the other person in the scene to do to affirm the relationship. The trick is, how do they get them to do it? Do they bring a gift, give a massage, share a story or play a game? There are as many tactics as there are situations.

The character’s job is to use these strategies to tease what they want out of the other person.

Now, meanwhile, the other character wants something, too. As writer you need to know that so you can fine tune the conflict. Here’s a quick attempt I sketched out:

Jaime arrives at the restaurant and since his girlfriend Janet isn’t there, he finds a table. Well, guess what? His ex Amanda walks over with this guy that she’s dripping over. She introduces him as her fiance. When Janet arrives, Amanda and her fiance drift to the bar.

Janet’s had a hard drive over here and is pissed… super duper pissed about the availability of parking in this city. She wants to rant and she wants him to be her ranting partner. As soon as she sits down she pulls some paper out of her purse and starts a petition. She demands Jaime brainstorm with her.

Amanda’s sitting at the bar, looking over and smiling at Jaime from time to time. Jaime wants to show her that he’s past her (he isn’t). He wants Amanda to be his crazy ex. To get that, he needs Janet to be his tasty tart girlfriend. He wants her to kiss him, to ooze all over him, like she usually does. But Janet’s going on about a petition! All he needs is one kiss. One big, sloppy wet one.

Do you notice how this translates into character action? But not just any action, emotion-revealing action? As Janet’s pulling out paper and pen, ranting, Jaime’s trying to kiss her.

Also notice how part of finding the action involves finding motivation. Jaime is motivated to work for that kiss because his ex girlfriend is there.

Could some motivation be added for Janet’s reason to write a letter? Could she decide that the restaurant is a great place to start getting signatures and start running around. In fact, what if a city counsellor is in the restaurant, too? Maybe Jaime’s ex is a city counsellor. (Oh my!)

Okay, perhaps that’s stretching it. (bit of a shrug) But it does demonstrate how playing around with the details of a scene can heighten the dynamics.

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Watch for negative goals

Negative goals sap away dramatic potential. Examples of negative intentions include:

  • To get away from…
  • Want nothing do with…
  • To want the other person to crawl up and die…

Negative intentions (to leave, destroy) end relationships. A story is all about how relationships change and move forward. If your character wants ‘nothing’ from the other person, what’s keeping them in the story at all? Why don’t they just run?

They have to want something from the other person, and it’s your job to figure that out (or cut them).

There’s no dramatic benefit to a negative choice. And that’s what we’re interested in as writers, digging into the relationships to create dramatic scenes full of conflict.

One additional note: a character may appear negative on the surface, but you can’t settle for appearances. As Michael Shurtleff says in his most wonderful book, Audition:

The story of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" 
is not about three sisters who didn't make 
it to Moscow; it's about three sisters 
who fight like hell to get there.

Okay, last tool in this series: emotional bank accounts.


Roles come from my fantabulous scene study instructor, Ron Singer. Goals courtesy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. Emotional bank accounts, business guru, Stephen Covey.

How does your character want to change the world?

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‘Should’ is a very powerful word. No other word shows us so well the ways we want to change the world.

How’s that?

It is through the word ‘should’ that we judge what is good and bad. Your boss ‘should’ consider how the employees feel. Your mother ‘should’ get herself to the doctor. Your girlfriend ‘should’ get her car in for an oil change. The bank ‘should’ have given you notice about rate changes.

All these little ‘should’s mount up. Oh, if only we were running things, the world would be a perfect place!

As we go through our days our critical eye scans the people, processes and things we come across. Just like Goldilocks, we judge each as either inferior, superior or just right. The highways are badly designed. Look at that guy driving like a maniac. Gosh, that girl is gorgeous. How can a bank teller not know how to process a foreign exchange transaction? Oh, here’s one of those new streetcars, I like how silent they are; finally our city has done something right!

The word ‘should’ is all about judgement. This should be that way, not this way. That should be this way, not that way.One thing is good and another is bad. The judgements are typically more negative than positive because these are our attempts to make the world perfect. Nudging things this way and that. It’s human nature.

How does a writer use this? To uncover what’s going on under the surface of your character’s relationship to the world.

Before you write a scene, consider what each character thinks the others ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do. For example if we were to consider the relationship of a married couple, we might consider what they think others should or shouldn’t do:

Martha thinks her husband Jason should…

  • Be making more money
  • Treat her like a woman once in a while (which means telling her she’s beautiful)
  • Stop bugging her about her drinking

Jason thinks Martha should…

  • Stop drinking (she’s downing almost a bottle a night on her own, for crying out loud)
  • Show some gratitude for all he does
  • Get a job

Each of us attempts to change the world in ways that range from the blunt to subtle.

“Are you sure you really want to do that?”
“It would be nice to afford a vacation once a year, but not on what you make.”
“Are you sure you want another glass of wine tonight, dear?”
“What have you done to your hair?”

“How dare you?”
Translation: You’re acting bigger than your britches and I’m going to bring you down a notch because you have no right to be different from what I expect you to be.

One common attempt at behaviour modification is to globalize:

“All you ever want to do is sit on the couch.”
“You never listen to me.”
“You’re always so mean.”

The other character, the person who is being accused of ‘always’ or ‘never’ doing something, tends to become defensive.

Having your characters globalize is useful, because we all do this, don’t we? But it is also a writer’s trap. The back and forth of accusing and defending can turn into “tit for tat”.

“You never listen to me.”
“Yes I do.”
“No you don’t.”
“Oh no, I do!”

Most readers want something deeper than this. They want a distillation of the conflict, not every moment played out in minute agony. Unless, of course, that agony is true agony. (But I digress.)

If a character is judging everyone else, they are usually doing the same to themselves. So, after you’ve looked at how your character is judging everyone else, you need to apply the same brush to their thoughts about themselves.

In the mirror, some of us see someone who ‘should’ get her hair done. Who ‘should’ exercise more, eat better, drink less, call her mother, and on and on. Some of us, however, suspend our judgement. We have reasons for the spare tire of flab around our middle, for our callous behaviour to a colleague or friend.

The act of exploring what characters think everyone else “should” be (doing, thinking) is to give you insight into the relationships beneath the gloss they show the world. Those insights help you to develop characters that breathe and thus write richer, more complex scenes.

And remember, it is not what a character says that reveals their character. It is what they do.

Actions always speak much louder than words.

How are your characters mad?

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As we humans have the capacity to imagine a different future, many of us are actually two people. Yes, really. There is the ‘me’ you see in the mirror. Perhaps that ‘me’ is a little chunky, having a bad hair day, wearing yesteryear’s styles. Then there is that ‘me’ in the future who is fit, gorgeous, well dressed, and would never stand in the middle of the kitchen eating a full carton of double chocolate ice cream at two in the morning.

Self-help books assume that we can make decisions about the things we care about and stick to them. Those books forget that each of us is a tich mad. Our self-control isn’t there when we need it, our talents never meet our expectations, our ability to design our lives is frequently a fantasy.

As Adam Phillips says in his book, Going Sane, “Madness is equated with loss of control, which is equated with doing forbidden things; sanity, on the contrary, is law-abiding, makes sense, and is equated with self-possession.” When, truly, do any of us really feel ‘self-possessed’?

We live in an age when the ground is shifting and the foundations are shaking. Each of us has reasons to be insecure. Self-possession is much treasured but rare asset.

Add to this that we understand how time works and that one day,we’ll be dead, even if we pretend this isn’t so. This impending death hits us in the face at times and makes us a little crazy. Somehow, each of us has to find a way to cope.

When the ground shakes we scurry into religion, work, alcohol, drugs, exercise, art, popular culture, the news of the day, the rules and regulations that make the world work, environmentalism, politics and more. These things ‘busy’ us and keep us entertained as time passes. We convince ourselves sometimes that if we are good enough and wise enough that we will live past our death. We will leave the world a better place. We will have left a legacy.

What does this mean for you as a writer?

When sitting down to write, the natural tendency is to create characters out of our hopes. The future ‘me’s of your imagination. That is, characters who are better than ourselves. Trouble is, there is nothing for a reader to explore in this imagined perfection.

Why wouldn’t someone else want to explore your ideal world? Well, readers don’t go into a story to learn about you, the writer. They go into a story to learn about themselves.

The good characters of dream writing always do what they’re supposed to, are never surprised by themselves and never have a moment of indecision. These ‘good’ characters come off as featureless, bland and fake. Readers have highly attuned radar for spotting fakery. “Who could be that good?” they ask themselves as they drop your book.

Plus, if a character is totally good, why do they need to change? If there’s one thing I see in manuscript after manuscript, it’s characters who are ‘perfect’ and thus, have nowhere to grow. Without a place to grow, there’s no story.

The great characters of literature are far from perfect. Can you recall one “good” character who has memorable lines?

Just like you, great characters are struggling with their sanity. Like us, they may pretend not to be struggling, but they are. Think of King Lear, Hamlet, Withnail, Dexter.

What does Hamlet sees when he looks in the mirror? The reason hell tells Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunnery” is because he has such a low view of himself (and all men). He is full of loathsome, sinful, ambitious and revengeful thoughts, and Ophelia would be better off in a nunnery than marrying any man. See full speech, below.

Readers connect with characters that are struggling because they see themselves. They are looking at a mirror, not a mirage. And when they follow a character who is struggling, it helps them to figure out the challenges they are facing in their own lives.

Hamlet: 

Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
 breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;
 but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
 were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
 proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
 my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
 imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
 in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
 between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
 all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.