Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Writing extreme emotions

I don't know about you, but I have not experienced first hand most of the tragedies I put my characters through. I haven't watched someone get murdered, or seen my life flash before my eyes, or been chased by demons and gargoyles. My life is a bit more subtle (aka boring). So then how does an author write about the emotions brought on by these experiences without having gone through them herself?

You could say you've watched similar things happen to actors on television or in movies and that's what inspires you. Or you could say a friend or family member had a similar experience and told you what it was like. Or maybe you read a nonfiction book or article from the point of view of someone who endured similar tragedies.

These are okay resources if they inspire you and get you to crank up your imagination. In fact, I have an awesome nonfiction book called LEAD POISONING that does a pretty darn good job of recounting the experiences of gunshot victims. I got it from Paladin Press, a terrific resource for this kind of information.

I'm sure you already know that exaggeration is key to writing believable fiction. I don't mean over-the-top plots and purple prose, but sometimes you have to push the envelope just to get the right information across to the reader, whether it be emotion, physical description or action. That being said, a little goes a long way, so everything you write must pack one hell of a punch.

I'm not pushing hyperbole, but I am emphasizing the importance of making your words count. In everything. I could go on for pages about this, and I'll add to this in future blog posts, but for now let's focus on the bugaboo writers tend to pull out their hair over. Emotions.

Think about anything, and I mean anything, that has had a powerful emotional impact on you and you can use it as a launching pad for any emotion you need your character to express.

Of course you'll have to embellish it for the purpose of your scene. For example, consider the most frightening experience you've ever had. Even if it was a call from the IRS telling you you're about to be audited. Such shocking news would likely send an icy ball of fear hurtling to the pit of your stomach. You don't have to face an evil sorcerer, ax murderer or a vampire to know fear. You just have to compound what you already know with intensity. The point is to use your personal storehouse of bona fide emotions as a building block to create authentic reactions for your characters.

But here's the thing. There are different levels of feelings we derive from our emotions. The IRS phone call elicits fear related to anxiety and dread. Fear for our lives is on a whole other level associated with horror, terror, panic, and hysteria. Escalating nervousness to terror is no easy task, so you will have to borrow from another emotional experience to balance the playing field.

Wait a minute. How can a different emotion be in the same ballpark as the one you're trying to convey? When it comes to visceral reactions, there are plenty of physical similarities to draw from.

Physical pain and emotional grief are heavy hitters. Most of us have experienced these to some degree. That intensity is what you need to carry through to your characters in a way that will create a tragic experience for the reader to share. You'll have to put your imagination into overdrive, and if you build on these base feelings, you may be surprised at how effective it can be.

Everyone feels. Whether the character is a six-year-old child or a fifty-year-old hardened criminal, these individuals are human beings. And for the benefit of the reader, the characters need to emotionally react to the events around them, even if the character only expresses it internally. A character who denies feeling anything is feeling it enough to think denial is the best way to handle it. That's a Catch 22, wouldn't you say?

Be prepared to venture into some dark places inside your head. If you want to create realism in your fiction, this is a sacrifice you need to make for your art. You can do it!

Feel free to share an intense emotional experience in a comment. It can be anything you think you could derive an emotional reaction from to enhance an experience for your character.


Jean Paradis said...

Good Blog Karen. I've found that I become so involved in 'being' my characters that I feel their emotions physically. Fear is a good example, we all know how that feels, but I've been known to smile while writing, and even giggle, and I won't tell you how the hot love scenes effect me. The key is to be fully engaged with your 'people.'

Alexis Walker said...

Hi Karen, I really liked your post. My critique partner is always asking me "How does she feel here?" Drives me crazy. I'm feeling it as I write it, but I have to get those words on the page. It's a bit of a "lost in translation" issue for me :-)

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks, Jean! Oh, yes, i hear ya, girlfriend. Getting into character can be... intense. Heehee. Tears and laughter and, uhm, *cough*...

Karen Duvall said...

I know what you mean, Alexis. It's hard to catch it all the time so thank the gods for crit partners. What would we do without em? Agents, too. Mine often gives me reminders or just suggests i might want to explore something a little more. So this blog's message is as much for me as for anyone. :) Thanks for dropping by!

Terry Wright said...

Great blog, Karen. Too often I read material that was written as if the authors visualized the scenes on the movie screens in their heads. There's action and dialogue and drama, but the lack of visceral and emotional reaction to these things make characters read flat and lifeless.

Karen Duvall said...

An excellent point, Terry. That's what i see a lot of in the various contests I judge. Lots of stage direction and minutia to set the scene, but very little from the characters.

N. R. Williams said...

When you reach my age you have a lot of experiences to draw from. I had a terrible thing happen to me once and now if something similar rises up in my life I am prone to panic attacks. Fortunately this is rare, but the discomfort is a raw emotion that can be manipulated in many situations.

Karen Duvall said...

Very true, Nancy. It may seem weird, but i often use my child birth experience to amp up the visceral aspect of some emotions. The most intense pain i ever experienced, plus lots of fear in there, and some rage (for obvious reasons). :)

Anonymous said...

Great topic, Karen. And a belated congrats on your Luna books. The really look intriguing.

I'm with Jean, I do "become" my characters when I'm writing. For me, I know the scene works when I still laugh/cry/feel fear even after I've read it for the 5th or 6th time when doing edits.

Sarah Raplee said...

I never thought much about using one emotional experience to help amp up another that I'm writing where a different emotion is involved. Insightful post, Karen!

Example: The terror I felt when our house was in the path of a tornado. We had no basement, so my husband, our three children and I and the cat and dog were crammed into a closet in the middle of the house.

(Luckily, the tornado decided to hop over our street, so the path of destruction ended before it reached us and re-started when it was past.)

BookBreather said...

Great post, Karen! And super helpful. Emotions are one of the most important part of a story. With no emotions, there are no characters and without characters there is no story!

Anyways, just received Knight's Curse on NetGalley. Definitely looking forward to reading it!

Balagbag lang said...

Great post and topic karen! Emotions are very important part of a story. With no emotions, there are no characters and without characters there is o story!