Thursday, July 12, 2012

Emotion is the Fuel that Makes Your Character Engine Run

A couple of weeks ago I posted about an overall problem with a few of the writing entries I'd reviewed while judging a writing contest. It had to do with lack of motivation, where characters would have all these intense reactions to... well, I don't know what. That was the problem.

The flip side of this is a character who's encountering gun fights, the death of loved ones, a horrible accident, the babysitter being late, what-have-you, and not feeling anything. In real life, we face our emotions constantly and are always responding to something. I woke up this morning and my heel hurts, for no apparent reason. How does that make me feel? Frustrated and annoyed. It's not very interesting, but it's just an example of how everyday people respond to everyday events. So for a story, the impact of character emotions in response to story events is paramount. 

The following is a very small sample from a workshop I gave last spring at the Pikes Peak Writer's Conference on deepening character emotions. My workshop was very well-attended. In fact, they had to bring in more chairs and some people still had to sit on the floor. I really, really wanted to present this workshop at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference, but the conference committee turned me down. That won't stop me from sharing it with my blog readers. :)

Emotions add authenticity to your writing. Readers read to escape and experience something new, or possibly re-experience a similar event from their past, like revisiting their childhood or falling in love. Good or bad, emotions initiate drama. They are the fuel that makes your character engine run.

The foundation for every story is survival: surviving a relationship, surviving family turmoil, surviving a loss, surviving a crime, surviving political upheaval. All stories are wrought with emotions that reveal character growth and influence the character's decisions for taking action.

Action is not what moves your story forward. Action is the result of your characters' decisions, and those decisions are influenced by their emotions. A reader reads for the emotional experience. If they wanted information and a recitation of action they could read dry facts in the newspaper.  

When does your character feel something? All the time. Every decision he makes is driven by need and those needs are influenced by emotion.

Which brings us to Motivation/Reaction units - Quite simply this is when something happens (motivation) and your character reacts (reaction). Can't have one without the other. This is constant in your story and these units will be strung together like a strand of Christmas lights all the way to the end.

Character Experiences an Event
Triggers an Emotion
Compels Action

You can have a plot event and depending on the character, you can get completely different emotional reactions that result in different actions. The action will depend on the emotion triggered by the event, and that emotion will depend on the personality traits of the character.

Harold gets shot
He's afraid for his life
He runs/hides


Harold gets shot
He gets angry
He goes for the shooter 

Same event, different emotional response, different action.

Another example:

Mary dumps John
John is devastated
He never has another relationship and dies a bitter old man

Mary dumps John
John is furious
He rebounds with Mary's best friend 

Same event, different emotional response, different action.

Exercise: Take a scene from your WIP and boil it down to a simple event/emotion/action for that character. Now do it again and replace that character with a different one using the exact same situation. Did the outcome change? Why?

Feel free to share what you come up with in comments.


SC Author said...

You are so right. When I come across a difficult, hard to write scene, it usually is a problem with characterization and lack of motivation -- emotion.

Paty Jager said...

Good blog. And easy to understand with your examples.

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks for stopping by, SC. It's that way for me, too. I can usually tell by the degree of my resistance to write a scene that the emotions need to be high octane for it to be effective. So this is the conversation I have with myself: "Aargh, I don't want to write this! It's going to be so awesome!" Contradictory? Yes. But is it true? You betcha.

Thanks, Paty! Making up examples is a great clarifier. :)

Mary said...

I found this very interesting and helpful. Hopefully I'll remember this while I am writing. Thanks!

Judith Ashley said...

Great examples, Karen. I can see why your workshop was packed and know people went away at the end with something specific to do to improve their writing.

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks so much, Mary and Judith. :)