Friday, August 20, 2010

Embracing Emotion

There is a wide range of basic emotions, including anger, aversion, courage, dejection, desire, despair, fear, hate, hope, love, sadness, disgust, joy, surprise, happiness, interest, wonder, sorrow, rage, terror, anxiety, contempt, distress, guilt shame, grief, elation, subjection, pain, pleasure, expectancy, panic.

Then there are a whole slew of secondary emotions such as curiosity, dread, tenseness, uneasiness, worry, alarm, fright, horror, mortification, shock, terror, amusement, ecstasy, bliss, elation, delight, jubilation, enthusiasm, excitement, exhilaration, fondness, attraction, adoration, caring, sentimentality, melancholy, despair, gloom, homesickness, embarrassment, humiliation, bitterness, resentment, loathing, hate.

With such a palette of emotion to choose from, every character should come alive, yet all too often the emotions that drive characters in books are the heavy hitters: fear and anger (thrillers) and lust (romance).

Perhaps this dearth of emotion is a holdover from the strong silent hero, the one who never showed emotion. Now that female characters have largely taken over the role of hero, they seem to be just as devoid of emotion, as if they are male characters disguised as female. I’m not advocating weak and emotional women characters, but still, tears (for example) are a part of human behavior and a way to express emotion. Besides, tears are not about weakness, but about releasing tension, so technically, a character who cries is as strong as a character who picks fights to relieve tension -- though perhaps not quite as interesting to today’s readers.

When writers do let their characters get emotional, all too often the sentiment comes across as an artificial construct that has nothing to do with either the character or the story, but simply added to evoke empathy from readers. Yet for these strong feelings to come across as real and for the characters to come alive with grief or elation, hope or bitterness, love or hate, the emotions have to be an integral part of the story. In an emotional state, people often act differently -- those falling in love behave irrationally at times (because, after all, love does appear to be an irrational state). Also, in an emotional state, people often see things differently -- lovers become finely attuned to the object of their love and to the sight of others in love. A story needs to reflect this change of perspective. What was once important is no longer, for example, the executive who decides to chuck it all when she falls in love. This might be trite, but at least it shows emotion in action.

And emotion is action. By embracing emotion, the character does something, goes through a change, finds a resolution. It doesn’t matter if the emotion is upbeat or downbeat, positive or negative -- the effect is the same.

So don’t be afraid of emotion, either yours or your character’s.


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Dawn Colclasure said...

Good post. I totally agree. Emotions are just a part of being human. And they really do bring a character to life. I once got scolded by a reader for giving my character "too much emotion' but how can we really decide whether someone has "too much emotion" or too little? Everyone is different, and some people, even men, are more sensitive than others.