How do I write with more emotion, like how can I make the reader feel exactly what the character is going through?
One thing that I believe I have mentioned on this blog before for a previous ask is the use of “power words”. As a brief run down, power words simply put are words that are sort of tethered to particular emotions just by connotation, such that they subconsciously remind the reader of that emotion. Some examples:
Things like metaphors, power words, and so on can be employed for practical use when writing, to convey emotions simply in the way you state things, even without a specific character in mind.
The best writers are the ones who are also good empathizers. It sounds a little cliche, but really, put yourself in your character’s shoes and try to truly imagine how they feel. If your character’s mother just died, “this sucks and it feels bad and sucky” is a general truth, but it’s not really going make the scene effective. Really do some research on the stages of grief, and also keep in mind your character’s other traits. Maybe they jump to denial, maybe they instantly wallow in memories, maybe they’re numb, maybe they act strong, but eventually, each and every one of them is going to have to come to terms. What does it look like when they do?
One problem that goes along with that is that writers often look at an emotion and only think of it as one thing, when really, it’s not possible to only feel one thing at a time. People feel a whole mix of things at a time, and sometimes one emotion is stronger than the others, but addressing the complexity is what adds true depth. Saying “I feel lost, and betrayed, and confused, and like there is a big whole in my life, and mad that I lost this thing” is more effective than saying “This is sad and I am sad about.”
At the same time, readers don’t like to slog through paragraphs of being told what to feel or how the character is feeling. You can tell a little, but now is also really an opportunity to use the *show* part of show and tell to your advantage. Consider:
Gideon felt the rage well within him faster than he could contain it. The betrayal stung more than he felt he could express, and his voice shook as he spoke. “Why, damn you? Why would you do that to me if you said that you care about me?”
Gideon felt the rage well within him faster than he could contain it. His mind went blank as his hand curled into a fist, bellowing with rage as he let the white hot anger carry his fist through the air, hitting the wall with a scream. He could barely feel the pain, his voice shaking as he spoke. “Why, damn you? Why would you do that to me if you said that you care about me?”
The first one is okay, and you can definitely tell Gideon is mad. However, by adding the action in the second, it really amps up the emotion by a lot. Actions speak louder than words, as they say.
Another nifty trick- if you are having trouble getting your character to say what they feel, start with yourself. When I used to act, my director taught me how to transfer my emotions into a scene. In one such moment, my character was excitedly talking about a recipe that I have never eaten before in my life and that I honestly probably wouldn’t even like. It was hard to sound genuinely excited about it, so what I did was start talking about something that I am actually excited about, and then halfway through, switch to my actual line. By doing so, I carried on the emotion, and all I had to switch out was the words that were being said.
Sometimes- in rare occasions-the best thing to do is to say it like it is. The best example I know of is the beginning of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” after the Baudelaire children receive the news of their parents’ death, and the narrator, Mr. Snicket, simply says:
“It is useless for me to describe to you how terrible Violet, Klaus, and even Sunny felt in the time that followed. If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”
Even that, in this specific situation, resonates. “You cannot possibly imagine it.”
Now, for the big, big truth, the key answer that I can give you:
The number one way that never fails to make a reader care about what your character is going through is to make them care about your character. If your character is well-developed, likable, relatable, then you have already successfully engineered a nice little trap into making your readers care about what is happening. Of course, a well written scene is always appreciated. But the very basis of a good scene is the characters driving it. For real.
Key points: pay attention to word choice, determine whether you want to show, or tell, and finally, characters are the basis of all things good and prosperous!
You know those lists we all see on how to writer *insert character type here* full of dos and don’ts?
Yeah, forget everything single and replace with a much simpler rule sheet that applies as a universal.
1)No matter the character type, writing people as people above all else is the number one rule. The number one way to avoid stereotypes is to write everyone in a three-dimensional human.
2)People do stereotypical things because stereotypes are created from exaggerating and generalizing reality. The difference between a stereotype and and a character that does stereotypical things is that for the later those traits do not define them. The stereotypical behavior is just facet of a complex personality.
A good example of this for people from the lower-class or Southern US is Finn on Bones. He has a lot of traits from his place of upbringing like his accent, southerisms, and tastes but isn’t defined by them. He’s still just as smart and well educated as any of his co-workers and people stereotyping him as “dumb white trash” is actually shown to be something he struggles with in an educated environment full of city folk.
Trying to hard to avoid stereotypes completely often results in alien and unrealistic characters that come off as cold and inhuman because they have no particular personality traits people from their real life demographic can relate to.
As someone from a lower-class area in Southern-Iowa, I relate to Finn because he likes “down-home” things like Country Music and Fishing while still trying his best to be educated and respectable. I relate to that more than i would someone having a generic intern college-kid intern and claiming he’s from a lower-class, American upbringing with no traits that actually show it.
3)Anyone can be a villain, the key just avoiding implying things like a certain minority status are the root of a characters evil. It can be a tricky dance because sometimes cultural things can lead to certain extremes, but for real people it’s often a case of a violent personality type twisting their beliefs around their evil desires to justify it.
4)No matter what people tell you: Tropes are not bad and in the hands of a skilled writer about anything can be done well. Some of the most beloved media is often built on the back of a well-used cliche.
That’s it, that’s literally the backbone of writing good characters that don’t come off as cardboard cut-outs or paper-thin stereotypes.
Did they ever meet both of their biological parents?
Were they raised by both biological parents?
Did both biological parents survive until they were an adult
(or otherwise emancipated)?
If raised by one or both biological parents, what is their
relationship with each parent?
If not raised by one or both biological parents but know them, what is their
relationship with each parent?
If raised by a relative, what is their relationship with
their biological parents?
If one or both of their biological parents died before they
knew them (or within the first year or so of their life), what is their opinion
of them? What/how did they learn about them?
If not raised by one or both biological parents but don’t know them despite them being alive,
what is their opinion of them?
If raised by someone other than their biological parents,
what is their relationship with the parent(s)/guardian(s) who raised them?
What are the relationships the parents/guardians (if there
is more than one) have with each other? How does that affect the relationship
the character has with each of them?
How many parents/guardians does the character have?
If there is more than one parent/guardian, do they live
Does anyone other than the legal guardian(s)/parent(s) take
care of/raise the character?
Does the character have any living grandparents? Do they know those grandparents? What are the character’s relationships with those grandparents? What are their opinions of any non-living grandparents?
Does the character have any living aunts/uncles? Do they know those aunts/uncles? What are the character’s relationships with those aunts/uncles? What are their opinions of any non-living aunts/uncles?
If they have biological siblings, are they younger or older?
How much? How many are there? Are any of them half-siblings? What is the
character’s relationship with each of them?
If they have cousins (or second cousins, etc.), are they
younger or older? How much? How many are there? What is the character’s
relationship with each of them?
If they have non-biological siblings or people they were
raised with as siblings? How much? Are they younger or older? How many are
there? What is the character’s relationship with each of them?
Nana is a big deal around these parts. As all villages must have a witch, the countrysides around must have fae. It’s the natural order and Nana keeps her fellows in check. She knows everyone and everyone knows her, fae or not. she knows more of other peoples business than she ought to, but this is for the best, really. She just likes to help, even if people don’t realise they have a problem yet. Its for this reason that she has so many children, and of so many different species and races. She just picks them up, the orphans, the abused, the unwanted and they become part of the clan. She would never steal a child from a happy home, bless my soul no. Anyway, stealing is such a ugly word. Nana would say she’s just helping.
She also has many of her own flesh and blood, but all but one have left home. her last child Breen has stayed home to bear the brunt of her mothering. She can be a bit overbearing at times, especially when his love life is brought up, but he loves her dearly and helps haul the produce for her stall in the village. Breen is a good boy for his mama.
I'm having trouble because I have a number of characters that I need to introduce pretty early on and I'm not sure how to do it without just having them all introduce themselves. None of them have ever met or heard of each other before the beginning of the story. Any advice?
Greetings and salutations! We’re going to talk about character introductions, but before we do, I’m going to link two posts off the top of my head where we’ve discussed this before. Check out these two posts for some additional information if you’d like it. Regardless, I’m going to go in depth here on some great strategies for mass character introductions.
Our anon mentioned that they needed to introduce all these characters pretty early on, but let’s stop and analyze that need for a moment. When you’re trying to decide if a particular event or detail is needed early on in your story, ask yourself the following question:
Do these characters (or facts/details) I’m introducing play a key role in the action of the beginning scenes?
Make a list of your first few scenes (include brief summaries of the scenes), and look at who the key players are. Imagine you have a character that is being paid to steal something, and they’re in the process of stealing it. The conflict in the first scene is their success/failure to steal said object. The person who hired them to steal it is unimportant in this first scene. Yes, mention that your character was hired by someone to do this, and maybe hint at a general consequence if your character fails (”He’ll kill me if I fail”) but avoid an in depth description of this “boss character” and the nature of their relationship until later. The only thing that matters right now is whether or not your protagonist is able to steal this object.
Regardless of what happens in the first scene, your protagonist will need to return to this boss character and either give them the object they stole or inform them that they failed. This is the point where you start to describe this boss character - what they look like, what their demeanor is like, what they’re willing to do to make their point. It may be the point where you go into the backstory of your protag’s relationship with them, but it may not be needed even now. It may be that this backstory isn’t necessary to know until 2 or 3 scenes later on when we start to wonder why the hell our protagonist is putting up with this boss person’s insane orders and methods.
The key point when it comes to exposition - make readers wonder about it before you tell them. Giving a reader all the information in the first chapter often results in a reader learning things they don’t even care to know yet.
So the first thing to do before you start introducing all your characters, is to decide which characters are involved in the actual events of the story in these early scenes. It’s likely that some of the characters need only a brief mention at this point (not a full intro), or perhaps even a postponed intro until a chapter or two later.
In the case of our anon, none of their characters know each other, so it’s necessary here to ask yourself why they all need to meet at this particular point. Can Character A meet B in scene one, and then meet C, D, and E in scene three?
If you feel like they all have to meet at once, because they’re all part of a group or something, then choose one or two relationships to focus on first. For example, when I start a new job, I take in everyone’s names at once but likely only remember a few, and the few I remember are because I end up talking or working with them 1-on-1 first. So decide if you’re able to generalize some of the introductions early on and focus on one or two character interactions early. It doesn’t mean those generalized intros are insignificant characters - it simply means we’ll get to them later when they become relevant. If this point seems valid to you, definitely read Penney’s post.
Make Each Intro Significant and Memorable
I make this point in the post of mine I linked, but in this case, there’s a little more to it than what I discussed. When a character is meeting a lot of other characters, each introduction should include more than just “Hi, I’m Rebekah.” A detail should be included that we’ll remember, or something should happen that becomes significant.
In Big Hero 6, Hiro meets four new characters in one scene (five if you include Callaghan). And each introduction includes not only a name (a nickname actually), but also showcases the area of science they each specialize in, because they’re each fussing with their projects as he moves through the room. Because he’s meeting them while they’re in the middle of work, we also see some characteristics about how they each operate (Wasabi getting upset when his “system” is disrupted by people grabbing his stuff). And rather than one big mass introduction, (”That’s Go-Go over there, and this here is Fred, and oh that guy over there is Wasabi”), Hiro meets each person individually, though still in one scene. These are formal introductions, but they work because they reveal something memorable and significant about each person, and it’s easier to keep track of them.
If this were a novel rather than a movie, this would also be a good place for Hiro to relate specific details about each person to his own life. If one of them reminded him of someone (whether it’s someone he knows, or a cross between two famous characters/celebrities), or if he’s initially intrigued or put-off by the character. For instance, Hiro later has an overflowing wastebasket full of discarded ideas, and this kind of mess might be something a super organized person like Wasabi might be driven insane by. So when they meet, Hiro might think something like, “Wow, if he’s frazzled by this kind of chaos, he better not set foot into my workshop.” I’ve exaggerated a bit, but I want to show an example of your opportunity as a novel writer versus a script writer. Pick on little details and show how the details affect the character that’s meeting them.
Use Distinguishable Names and Create Associations
If at all possible, choose names for your characters that are easy to keep straight. Try to avoid having too many character names that start with the same letter, or have similar sounds to them. That’s no need to have a Danny D. and Danny C. situation here, or even an Ashley/Amber situation. You have control over your characters’ names, so pick names that are easily distinguished from the other characters’ names.
Also, with a large cast, let readers form associations with a particular name that they won’t forget:
“Noah was a ‘no-nonsense’ kind of guy.”
“Shelley had a shrill laugh, and she was easily amused (and easily startled) so you heard it quite frequently, even across the room.”
“Ricky was the risk taker of the group. Not because he was brave or anything, but because he never thought things through.”
Noah = no nonsense
Shelley = shrill
Ricky = risky
These adjectives serve as subtle mnemonics that help to build associations between names and descriptors, and it’s the type of thing that a reader will remember without realizing that they’re remembering it.
Mix and Match for Variety in Interactions
Depending on the type of point of view you are using, you may also have the opportunity to create smaller conversations within the larger group. You start the story with Ashley meeting Noah and Shelley, and you take the time to really show enough of who each character is that we’ll remember, and then you jump to a new scene where Danny is meeting Ricky. Once we’ve gotten used to this second group of characters, you bring all five together. Instead of being overwhelmed with all five characters at once, we’re spoon fed a little at a time so it’s less of an overload.
And this example of 3 characters, then 2 characters isn’t an absolute. You can work with as many characters as you feel you can balance. If you’ve got a cast of, let’s say 12 characters, you might start the scene with a group of 5, and then a group of 3, and then a group of 4. The number of characters you’ll introduce at a time is in proportion to the cast as a whole. A bigger cast might mean bigger groups, or perhaps several smaller groups. This is where you play around with your specific setup to see what works.
These are just some tips for introducing a large number of characters. Hopefully something in here will help you!
When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved.
I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.