A young writer reached out to me on Instagram last month looking for some guidance when it comes to Character Development. She said that she was afraid that she spent a lot of time describing what her characters were doing at any given moment, but was failing to reveal why they were doing the thing, and what they were feeling when they did it.
This can be a problem for a lot of writers, especially those who aren’t thinking critically about the underlying layers and motivations of emotion in the scene they’re writing. Books, after all, serve only one real purpose – to tell a story that makes you feel something. The peril of simply reciting a character’s actions instead of revealing to the audience how they feel while they do them is real.
And because humans sympathize with others so strongly, the overarching way to make a reader feel something about a book is to share with your readership what the characters themselves are feeling in the moment. You need to provide readers with the opportunities to experience the emotion in tandem, and to watch those characters learn, evolve emotionally, and grow as people as the adventure happens.
Now, that’s not to say you have to drown the prose in blunt, obvious phrases like “I’m sad,” or “I’m so angry at you right now!” Novels are still, overwhelmingly, more successful when they can show and not tell.
I mean, I liked Lord of the RIngs okay when I read it, but ultimately I found it very boring as a story as it was a recitation of actions and histories and descriptions, with little to no glimpses into Frodo’s thoughts and feelings on the Quest. I couldn’t feel the weight of the ring digging the chain into his neck, I didn’t thirst with Frodo when he was parched, didn’t understand how bone-tired he was as he snuck through Mordor. I didn’t glory in the sun of the Shire on his face or the grass of the meadow below Weathertop on his feet.
But then Peter Jackson gave us this:
And yes, I am aware that this is a film, and a picture is worth a thousand words. But there’s feeling in these screencaptures, even as they’re static. In both of them you’ll note that Frodo is sitting down, resting, mind far away and leaning back on something.
But he’s not at all feeling the same thing, and his posture, body language, where he’s looking, what he’s holding, and how he’s reacting to the environment around him all gives the viewers a clue to what is happening to him internally.
And writers – lucky us! – have to do the same, but, you know, with letters instead of pictures.
When writing a scene, here are some points to keep in mind:
- What is the Character FEELING in that moment?
- What is their overriding emotion in this scene?
- And what does that emotion motivate them to do, or not do?
- What is the Character HIDING from those around them?
- What secrets do they want to keep. Is it something dire?
- How does holding that secret make them feel?
- Is this secret distracting them from what’s happening? Are they paying attention?
- What is the Character REVEALING Accidentally to those around them
- If they’re hiding something, are they giving it away? Are they a good liar? How does that affect their body language? Can others tell?
- What happens when the others around your character understand what they’re trying to hide?
- If they’re not intentionally hiding something, they may still be giving clues away to something else – what do they looking, what are they wearing, how are they moving? What’s on their clothes? Think Sherlock here – and keep in mind, who in the rest of the group can read those clues, and how accuratly?
- What is the Character REVEALING On Purpose to those around them
- If they have a secret, are they hoping others will figure it out? Are they helping other figure it out?
- Are they sharing information some other way, besides talking?
- Are they actively sharing the info, or passively?
- How does that affect the ACTIONS of the Character in that moment
- Taking all the above into the account, what does the character do, where do they move, what actions do they make as a result?
- (For example – if they are lying to their mother, would they go sit at the table directly beside her? Or stand further away? Why make that choice? To what advantage to them?)
- How does that affect the BODY LANGUAGE of the Character in that moment
- Are they excited? Bouncing on toes? Throwing hands in the air?
- Are they exhausted, slouched against a wall or another person, struggling to stay upright?
- Do they look guilty? Or are they cool as a cucumber about a secret they’re keeping?
- How does that affect the PHYSICAL FORM Of the Character in that moment
- What does guilt feel like? Squirming on the inside, heavy with shame, a headache?
- What does happiness feel like? Lighter than air, the urge to dance?
- What does hunger feel like? Curled in on stomach, weak, cold from lack of calories to burn, sleepy.
- And lastly, why is the Character doing that particular ACTION at that particular time
- If you’re adding actions just to add actions, sit back and think of how natural they are. Would that character actually do that thing, at that time, with everything else around them happening the way it is?
- Stillness is also a choice, and it can be a powerful character-revealer, depending on how you use it.
Let’s do an exercise:
Go back to the moments where you character is DOING and not FEELING. Put a pin in them – flag it, highlight it, print it out and put an actual pin in it, whatever works for you. Then, when you’ve found several moments that need fleshing out… step away from the keyboard.
And act it out.
Say what your character is saying. Do what they are doing. And above all, trying to feel what they are feeling.
The first time through, do it exactly as your character is doing it; copy what they say and each action precisely. Mark the places where what they’re doing or saying feels stiff, awkward, or forced. It likely is.
The second time through, pay attention to those awkward moments, and try doing them a new way. Get into your character’s head and improvise; ball your fists, kiss the back of your hand if there’s a smooch, punch a pillow, pace, jump, use your body the way you really would if you really were this person in this actual situation. Make that cup of tea or take down that bowl from the cabinet.
Try to access the emotions of the character – and then pay attention to how those emotions affect your body.
When you want to cry, what happens? The back of your eyes burn, there a lump in your throat, your chest feels tight, your chin starts to shake, your nose runs.
When you’re elated, what happens? Your blood feels fizzy, your heart beats fast, you bounce and hop on your feet, your head feels light, you’re giddy and giggle, your hands flutter. You can’t focus on just one thing.
When you’re furious, what happens? You slam doors, to grunt and huff, you punch the air, you stab your finger in someone’s face, your face flushes, your hands shake.
These physical reactions to emotion are a human universal, and moreover they show the emotion the character is feeling rather than tell it. It’s like a cheat-code to getting your reader to understand what the people they’re reading about are feeling, are going through, without having to outright say that they’re sad, or elated, or furious.
When you reach the end of the scene, make notes on what you changed. Then run through it as many times as you need to find the right balance.
And then sit down to the keyboard and make those changes. I’m certain you’ll find the scene much stronger. The more you do this exercise, the easier it will get. Soon you won’t have to stand up to do it at all, you’ll remember that this is stuff you have to add into the prose and will do it as you write – practice, after all, makes perfect.
If this exercise doesn’t work for you personally as a writer, then try to find another way to access this emotional reality of your character as you’re working on the scene. Remember, emotion is the driving force of all action. What you feel dictates – or drives – what you do, and how and why you do it. This is no less true for made-up people.
And as always, I advocate that each writer try to get out of their PJs and away from a keyboard and take an acting class or two. In highschool? SIgn up for drama classes or join the club. Outside of school? Audition at a community theatre, or do evening improv classes. If you’re not up for public acting, read books on acting techniques, character motivation, and performance. Something, anything that helps you access the understanding that physical gesture is born of motivation, which is driven by feeling, which can reveal character. And then practice it.
Or watch movies, see what the actors do – how do they make you understand so clearly what they’re feeling, and why? And then practice describing that.
I promise, it will help you become a better writer.
There are also some great resource out there to help you understand how character drives motivation, which drives feeling, which drives action:
- Writers Helping Writers – the Emotion Thesaurus
- I personally highly recommend this whole book series as there’s a whole bunch of different resources, and they put some common emotions on the blog.
- The Non-Verbal Thesaurus
- One Stop For Writers – Emotion Thesaurus
- Writer’s A-Z of Body Language
- Writer’s Write – Body Language Cheat Sheets
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