Writing Tip of the Week: Crafting Character Emotions

Emotions.  We all have them and use them.  Whether positive or negative emotions, human beings utilize these traits to convey a wide range of feelings to others.  As real people, we have a lifetime to analyze, discover, and change our emotional responses to situations caused by internal and external forces.  

With fictional characters, however, this becomes more of a challenge.  You only have a certain number of script pages or novel chapters to provide the audience with fully realized and dimensional characters with whom they will share the story’s journey.  But how do you tap into the emotional center of a fictional being? How do you make them relatable, empathetic, and capable of change?

Let’s talk about it.

Why Emotions?

Emotions help ground your characters in reality and make them relatable to the audience.  If a viewer or reader finds emotional traits within the main character that connect them to the hero on a deeper level, this leads to the story having more resonance for the audience.  

Most mainstream entertainment uses broad and general emotions to connect with the majority of viewers or readers.  From wanting to belong to finding the courage within to fight injustice, relatable emotional hooks connect audiences to your characters and to the story.

It’s important to remember, too, that a well-rounded character has a combination of positive and negative emotional traits.  The positive should outweigh the negative in a protagonist, but since real people have both types, giving your main character a few negative emotional characteristics will help make them more realistic.

When developing your characters, make a list of emotional traits you feel they would possess at the start of the story and how that list will change after the story ends.  Do they go from being fearful and timid to courageous?  Do they go from being cocky and self-assured to humble and respectful?  The events of the story should serve the character’s emotional journey as well.

So, how do we see these types of emotions in action?

Look Inside Yourself

You have emotions and feelings, both positive and negative.  As I stated at the beginning, we all do.  As you create your main character, even if they are 100% different from you, you can still put yourself in their shoes and ask: How would I handle the situation?  This is a great starting point to orient yourself in the character’s shoes (since you will be spending a lot of time with them) and helps make them relatable.  Emotions are universal, but how we deal with them varies from person to person.

Would your main character react the same way you would to bad news?  If so, use that.  If not, dig deep into yourself and see what emotions this character could use to cope and deal with the bad news they have heard.  Even if it’s the opposite of how you would react, you can still justify their emotional response by looking within.

Study People You Know

The holiday season is upon us, and with that – this year more than last – comes interactions with family, friends, and strangers.  Observe people in stressful situations.  How do they react?  How do they cope?  Do they irrationally express their emotions, or rationally work to resolve the problem?

When traveling, make notes on how people respond and react to travel delays, masking rules, and other restrictions.  Why are they acting like that?  Put yourself in their shoes.  How would you react?  How would your main character react?  

Public spaces are a great place to mine emotional responses that can only aid you in your creative writing endeavors.  The mall, Target, or the grocery store can also deliver the emotional goods when the holidays are upon us.

Family and friends are filled with stories.  Use their stories to explore how they dealt with a problem or an issue.  Family and friends are a great resource for research, and you can bet someone at the table will say, “If it were me, I would have…” in response to what was just told to the group.  Make a mental note or write the differences in emotional responses down.  All of it is great fodder for character creation and development.

Read, Watch, Listen

Maybe your main character is a politician, a celebrity, a police officer, or a billionaire.  The nice thing is that there are plenty of autobiographies, biographies, documentaries, and even podcasts that delve into the lives and mentalities of these types of people.  A politician thinks and plans out their life differently than other professions.  A celebrity’s personal life is public, which can cause a lot of emotional stress that regular people don’t have to deal with.  

By doing research, you can find out how these individuals work through failures, successes, being in the public eye, media scrutiny, etc., and get to the real emotions behind it.  All of this research helps to make your main character more relatable and empathetic to the audience. YouTube is a treasure trove of free interviews, specials, and documentaries about all kinds of people. 

And if your villain is a serial killer, you have thousands of podcasts and documentaries to choose from that delve into the psyche of these individuals.  What makes serial killers, politicians, and billionaires tick?  Are there any emotional similarities between them?

Don’t Rely on Fiction for Reference

There are billions of real people who can be viewed as references for emotional arcs within your fictional world.  Real people can deliver true emotional depth and empathy, giving your characters a great level of dimension.  

While most of us love fiction, it’s wise not to use fictional characters as reference points for emotional character development.  It’s tempting to make your characters like Tony Stark or Jack Torrance, but then you aren’t bringing anything fresh or new to the emotional table.  Creating cookie-cutter characters makes them dull and uninteresting.  Borrowing traits from Bruce Wayne or Elle Woods is lazy writing.  

Work to develop emotional arcs for your character that don’t allow your audience to predict the outcome.  This leads to greater interest in the characters, the story, and a greater connection emotionally.

Multi-dimensional characters give audiences the best way to escape into the fictional world in front of them.  By creating a relatable main character filled with depth and real growth, audiences are more likely to enjoy the journey and appreciate the pay-offs by the story’s end.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!

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