There are two types of writers, or so I’ve been told. One is the objective writer. He – or she — skillfully captures the actions taking place within the environment, delivering a picture so clear that readers can easily see all that’s happening. Objective writers are direct, to the point, and hard-hitting in the vision of the world they present.
Subjective writers, on the other hand, grab readers by the emotions and don’t let go. They force readers to feel their way through a story rather than observe it. What happens in the lives of the characters also happens — at an emotional level — in the hearts of the readers.
If you’ve read any of my stories, you’ll already know that I’m a highly subjective writer. Although I try to capture the sights and faithfully show the movements and physical aspects of my characters and the settings, my strong suit is getting myself so deeply immersed in their heads that their thoughts and feelings naturally come pouring out — sometimes in ways that surprise me.
I consider myself very fortunate to be a subjective writer. It’s easier, I’ve heard, for a subjective author to learn the techniques involved in writing from an objective point of view. Objective writers, however, often struggle to “add” emotions onto the page. And there’s the rub. Emotions aren’t something that can be added in later. They can’t be layered onto a story. Either they’re there, or they’re not.
Where do emotions come from? How do we draw them out and put them on the page?
This is related to that oft-repeated advice to “show, don’t tell.” Yet how, precisely, do you show a quality as intangible and incomprehensible as an emotion?
Body language is often touted as a ideal way to show emotion. Yes, it’s important. If a character is feeling down-hearted, we need to see those sagging shoulders, the slow, shuffling steps, the pinched facial features that reveal the emotions. We’re still approaching it from an objective point of view, though. We’re using our heads to rationalize how an emotion looks.
How do we move beyond that point and use our hearts instead? How do we give readers the subjective experience that allows them to feel the emotions themselves? What tricks can we use to make readers laugh, cry, or slam doors in anger along with our characters?
First, we have to understand where emotions come from.
I remember back to Psychology 101, many years ago. I really didn’t agree with a lot of what I was taught about emotions. It sounded so backward!
Here’s the example I recall: You see a bear and immediately become frightened. Sounds about right, don’t you think? Well, maybe. But, a two-year old child sees the same bear and laughs. The difference of course, is that YOU know the bear is dangerous. YOU know you “should” be frightened. The child doesn’t have that same awareness. In other words, you had to think before you felt. Or, as it was explained in that textbook, thought precedes emotion.
I’ve lived long enough now and have learned enough about life to realize that this is fairly close to the truth. It’s not, of course, the whole picture. It’s not only our thoughts but our perspectives, our beliefs, our circumstances, and the context of our lives that shape our emotional responses to the world around us.
This, then, is the key to getting emotions onto the page. First, we have to know our characters, and we have to understand their beliefs, their desires, and especially their motivations — a handy word which is closely related to emotion — in order to sense what they are thinking and feeling.
Here’s a short little excerpt from Keeping Faith which illustrates the importance of who the character is and how his perspective on life shapes his emotions. Tom Henderson has returned to the dilapidated old homestead where he was raised. With him is a friend, Caleb Bryant.
“No point thinking about things you can’t have.”
“Who says you can’t have them?” Caleb asked.
Tom’s head jerked up. For as long as he could remember, he’d been told he’d never amount to a hill of beans, that he’d end up swinging from some noose, or rotting away in some jail. He was a bastard. Worse still, a whore’s bastard. Nobody had use for that sort of man.
But Caleb didn’t see him that way. Caleb, by God, was damned stupid enough to think every man deserved a chance to make something of himself. And why the hell not?
Tom wished with all his heart that he could have all the things he’d been denied as a child. Not the material things. Those things didn’t matter. What he wanted were the intangibles. The love. The respect. The laughter, the kindness, the happiness, the joy. He’d never known any of those things before, and now Caleb said he could get whatever he wanted?
Damn, but what did he know that Tom didn’t?
He was going to listen. He was going to learn.
And nobody would ever put Tom Henderson down again.
Can you feel Tom’s emotions? I haven’t named them, but can you feel the first stirrings of hope? Can you sense his sudden awareness of new possibilities in his life? Can you experience the same quiet determination that Tom feels?
Here’s another little excerpt from the same story. In this snippet, Tom’s just learned that his sister Sally died in childbirth, leaving behind a precious little girl. He’s holding the baby for the first time.
“Please, Mr. Henderson. It’s plain to see that you’ve got no way to provide for your niece. I suppose I should have taken time to make the trip on my own to assess the conditions, but I was hopeful you’d be in a position to take her. Optimism is one of my weaknesses, I daresay.”
She didn’t look too optimistic in Tom’s eyes. He couldn’t imagine her ever having a positive outlook about anything.
But this child! She needed hope. She deserved bright blue skies and sunny days. She deserved butterflies and flowers, and the sweet promise of spring. Not some strait-laced, tightly-corseted old biddy who thought of her as nothing more than baby girl.
Tom looked down at the tiny bundle he held in his arms. So tiny, yet so perfect. He marveled over the little fingers, touching each one by one. When the baby’s hand closed around his big thumb, he felt a tugging at his heart so real, so undeniable, he suddenly couldn’t find his breath.
“Excuse me, Mr. Henderson.” Edith Christensen’s nasally voice grated on Tom’s nerves. “I have to leave now. It’s a long trip back to Denver. You need to give me the child.”
“Not yet, ma’am. She’s my niece. I want a little time with her.” He stroked one soft, pink cheek and was rewarded with a gurgling, cooing smile. “She likes me,” he said, glancing toward Lucille.
And he liked her. No, he loved her. This precious life wrapped in a thick gray blanket was kin. Not his own child, but a child who shared his blood, all the same. She was Sally’s daughter, and Sally was gone now. This sweet, nameless angel was all that was left to him of his sister’s kindness, her goodness, her own innocence.
He wished he could have taken better care of Sally, could have helped her and given her all she needed, but he’d failed her. Too young, too mixed-up, and too bitter about his own life, Tom hadn’t been able to save Sally from the wretched evils of their childhood.
But he’d damned sure save this baby.
“I’m not giving her back,” he said in a quiet voice. “I’m going to keep her.”
Again, can you share Tom’s emotions here? Many readers have commented on the emotions within this story. Those emotions come through because we know who Tom is, we know his beliefs about himself and his place in the world, and we know his heart.
That’s the secret. Take what’s in the heart and use it as a way of understanding the thoughts inside the character’s head. Together they become a powerful combination that creates emotions readers can share.
Thanks for visiting today!
If you’d like to read more, Keeping Faith is available from Amazon and other on-line booksellers. You can purchase it in both e-book and paperback format.