I took these pictures in the morning on an overcast day when the flowers were slightly backlit.
These were taken at noon after the sun came out.
This variety of amaryllis is called Stardust. Here's Hoagy.
One of my favorite online plant companies has a sale on amaryllis after Christmas. I decided to order a second plant. After much deliberation, I chose Aphrodite. When the bulb arrived, there was a note on the receipt telling me Aphrodite sold out and they'd replaced my choice with ...
character emotion is a balance between universality and uniqueness. Emotions
must be familiar enough to produce empathy in the reader, yet the expression of
the emotion must be unusual so that the reader is intrigued. Some of the most
powerful expressions of emotion are the ones that inform about character.
Julie Berry’sAll the Truth That’s In Me, sixteen-year-old Judith has been
ostracized from her conservative, religious, colonial community. She’s no
longer eligible to marry Lucas, the boy she’s loved her entire life. Judith
cannot speak, and she has limited ability to read and write. The novel is
written in second person as Judith addresses Lucas in her mind.
nothing so bright as the stream by day, nothing so black on a moonless night.
bent and drank straight from it. It was all I had to fill my belly. And maybe,
I thought, you’d be thirsty, too, after a scratchy day of haying, and before
retiring to bed you’d dip down into the same stream and drink the water I had
kissed. You’ve cooled off here most summer nights since you were a boy.”
expression of longing, love and the desire to communicate are unique to Judith
because she is resigned to her solitude. She wishes that Lucas would “drink the
water [she] had kissed.” Judith’s wish for this small thing and huge
impossibility causes the reader to yearn with her.
a recent workshop, Donald Maass said, “When characters feel what we expect them
to feel, the reader doesn’t feel it.” Maass suggests choosing any scene and writing
the emotion the character is experiencing. Then he suggests listing the second
emotion the character feels, and the third and the fourth. Maass asks writers
to rewrite the scene based on the fourth emotion. The other three magically
find their way into the passage as well. The scene is deeper, more profound and
more likely to touch the reader.
I cannot know other writers’ thought processes or if they examined several
emotions before settling on the one they used in the following passages. I
chose the quotes because they resonated with me. Perhaps the reason I found
them moving was they didn’t express the most obvious emotion.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir by Jacqueline Woodson. Woodson’s parents had a
troubled marriage and eventually separated. In this scene, Woodson doesn’t show
the parents fighting, she doesn’t tell the reader that her mother was homesick,
and she doesn’t even show her mother’s dislike of Ohio. She presents the bond
between her mother and her paternal grandmother who were both from the South.
know the southern way of talking
words, remember when
heat of summer
melt the mouth,
southerners stayed quiet
out over the land,
at what seemed like nothing
that silent nod said everything
needed to hear.
in Ohio, my mother and Grace
too much air between words, are happy
for another familiar body in the room.”
captures a fundamental difference between her mother’s Southern upbringing and
her new life in Ohio. Any reader who has been homesick, lonely, or felt out of
place relates to this passage and admires the fresh expression of these
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson is a young adult novel about twins, Noah and
Jude. Early in the book, Noah, then thirteen, describes his relationship with Jude.
He doesn’t tell the reader that he loves his sister, or brag about the
extraordinarily close relationship they have. Noah almost inadvertently admits
that he is dependent on Jude.
scoots over so we’re shoulder to shoulder. This is us. Our pose. The smush.
It’s even how we are in the ultrasound photo they took of us inside Mom and how
I had us in the picture Fry ripped up yesterday. Unlike most everyone else on
earth, from the very first cells of us, we were together; we came here
together. This is why no one hardly notices that Jude does most of the talking
for both of us, why we can only play piano with all four of our hands on the
keyboard and not at all alone, why we can never do Rochambeau because not once
in thirteen years have we chosen differently. It’s always: two rocks, two
papers, two scissors. When I don’t draw us like this, I draw us as
reader who has loved another person can identify with the close relationship
between these siblings. The unique voice appears in the way Noah concedes that
he doesn’t feel whole without Jude.
end this long series with another quote from Donald Maass. “More than plot, we
crave meaning and emotion. We want to experience something, not just be
In The Emotion Thesaurus, Ackerman and Puglisi write, “PHYSICAL SIGNALS are how
our bodies outwardly respond when we experience emotion. The stronger the
feeling, the more the body reacts and the less conscious control we have over
movement. Because characters are unique, they will express themselves in a
writer who knows his or her characters well, understands how they move. When I
volunteered at Taekwondo tournaments, I could pick out the masters by the way
they walked, smooth as a jungle cat with no wasted motions. Contrast that with
an adolescent boy who has just had a growth spurt. Now compare the masters and
the gawky boys to a self-conscious, insecure middle school student who has to
stand in front of the room and give a book report. Character
gestures include habits and mannerisms. Does your character make a specific
motion when he’s nervous or scared, or better yet, when he’s bluffing? What
does your character do when she remembers a painful incident from the past?
language is useful for describing the emotions of secondary characters. Unless
the writer is using an omniscient point-of-view, the feelings of secondary
characters can be expressed only through their dialog, deeds and gestures. The
main character cannot know their thoughts. J.K. Rowling is a master of
character gestures. Dobbie pulls his ears, Vernon Dursley’s mustache bristles,
and Minerva McGonagall turns her back on Dolores Umbridge. These motions are
concise and effective. The emotion is expressed without drawing the reader’s attention
away from the feelings of the protagonist – which is what the scene is about.
the most exquisite use of gestures is when the character cannot express the
emotion in words. In John Green’sThe Fault in Our Stars, two teens with
terminal cancer fall in love. Hazel Grace describes kissing Gus a few days
before he dies.
I got his face nose-touchingly close so that I could only see his eyes, I
couldn’t tell he was sick. We kissed for a while then lay together listening to
The Hectic Glow’s eponymous album, and eventually we fell asleep like that, a
quantum entanglement of tubes and bodies.”
is not a typical make-out scene from a young adult novel. Hazel Grace gets so
close she “couldn’t tell he was sick.” The reader pretends with them for a
moment that a happy ending is possible before returning to the “quantum
entanglement of tubes and bodies.”
Road to Tater Hill, Edith Hemmingway captures grief with a single gesture. When
eleven-year-old Annie’s baby sister is stillborn, her mother sinks into
depression. Her father is overseas, and her grandparents try to cope. Annie describes
a rock she found near the river.
was about the size of one of Grandma’s loaves of homemade bread, only heavier –
just the right weight for a newborn baby. I nestled it into the corner of my
arm, the way I would have cradled Mary Kate. Not like a doll; I was too old for
dolls. But when I closed my eyes and imagined that the rock was a baby, there
was something about the weight and feel of it that filled the empty hole inside
me. I held it close for a long time while the water rushed past, birds chattered
in the branches above and a bee buzzed its way around the clusters of
can’t describe how sad and lonely she is. She can’t express how much she misses
the baby sister she never knew. So she cradles a rock, and for an instant, the
reader imagines with her that the baby was healthy.
character gestures speak louder than words.
character’s thoughts are referred to as internal monologue or interiority. They
provide a direct window into the character’s mind. Many editors prefer internal
monologue to physical reactions. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole
says, “Writers try to ‘show’ with a character’s body all the time, but it often
starts to read like a medical chart that details the status of her internal
organs, or a dance number that chronicles what her limbs are doing. I don’t
care about your character’s oddly detached body parts.” By showing a
character’s thoughts, writers can avoid clichéd butterflies in the stomach,
blushes and meaningful gazes.
the downside, interior monologue can read like an info dump when the writer
tries to convey extra material to the reader. At a writing workshop, Carolyn Coman reminded us to “remember who we’re talking to.” In most cases, the
character is talking to himself, not the reader. Interior monologue is not a
place to stash backstory.
the upside, internal monologue is an excellent opportunity to develop a
character’s voice. Consider the word choices a character uses when thinking.
They may be different from the way he talks to his friends, relatives or
teachers. Internal monologue may reveal the character’s most secret desires, or
show how the character deceives herself. By expressing a character’s thoughts,
the writer has an opportunity to convince the reader that the character is
unique and interesting.
Leslie Connor writes about the difficult life of twelve-year-old Addie in Waiting for Normal. Addie and her erratic mother live in poverty in a tiny trailer. Addie
is given a respite from her worries and responsibilities when she joins her
mother's exboyfriend and half-sisters for a brief vacation. She’s old enough to know that
the fun cannot last.
it wasn’t anything in particular that happened while I was there, but while I
was at the inn, I started feeling like a Tootsie Roll Pop. On the outside I was
having a shiny-good colorful time. But I could feel my chewy, gooey center
squishing and squashing inside me.”
simile veers close to the physical reactions Mary Kole warned against, except
it works – extremely well. Conner exquisitely contrasts “a shiny-good colorful
time” with “my chewy, gooey center squishing and squashing inside me.” Her
perfect depiction of Addie’s voice brings the character to life. Readers relate
to the shared experience of good times ending.
Kathi Appelt’s brilliant midgrade novel, The Underneath, she describes the
developing friendship between the calico cat and Ranger, the old hound dog.
“Cats are famous for purring. And this is what
the calico cat did as she curled up next to Ranger’s massive chest, safe and
soft. Until he heard it, Ranger had not realized how much he needed this sweet,
friendly sound. How much he needed someone to settle in next to him. He didn’t
know that he needed to not be so solitary until at last he wasn’t. So many
needs in one old dog.”
cannot imagine a more moving depiction of companionship. Appelt’s word choices
exude coziness: “curled up,” “safe and soft”, “sweet, friendly sound,” and
“settle in next to him.” She pulls the reader into this moment of security and
love. The last seven words break the reader’s heart and carry the rhythms and
flavors of the Deep South where this novel takes place.
write fiction to tell a story. We read fiction to share characters’ experiences.
A good writer addresses both these needs. As readers, we want characters who
are interesting enough to take up some of our busy lives. Characters become
interesting both through their uniqueness and their commonality with us. Readers
relate to emotion when they find similar experiences in their own memories.
to the second installment of my series of posts on expressing character
emotion. This will be a five part series here, plus a summary post over at The
Mitten. At the end of each post, I’ll provide links to the other entries.
way to express emotion is to describe what the character experiences. In using
this approach, the writer relies on the reader’s shared experiences and
empathetic reactions to bring the scene to life.
Hood, in Creating Character Emotions, warns against being non-specific in our
descriptions. “Sometimes it is laziness that keeps a writer from doing what
Flannery O’Connor called ‘painting a picture with words.’ But often this comes
from the writer’s own insecurity about where the character should be
emotionally at this point of the story.” In my view, if writers truly
understand their characters, they can create scenes that the reader lives
In the opening of The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley
fifteen-year-old Corinna describes her job as the person who appeases and feeds
the dangerous beings called the Folk who inhabit the fantastical world of this
is a day of yellow fog, and the Folk are hungry. They ate the lamb I brought
them, picking the bones clean and leaving them outside the Folk Door.
lamb was meant for Matron’s Sunday supper. She’ll know I took it, but she will
not dare say anything. She can keep her tapestries and silks and Sunday
dinners. Here in the Cellar, I control the Folk. Here, I’m queen of the world.”
passage starts with spooky images: yellow fog, bones picked clean, yet there is
no sense of fear. The reader is intrigued with the mystery. Corinna segues to
scorning the Matron’s luxurious lifestyle, and ends by boldly claiming dominion
over her strange world. The reader is attracted to the courageous, confident girl
who claims to be queen of a cellar.
then, a noise shatters the night. A deep, vibrating noise that seems to tear
through the forest, rumble the earth. It comes from what feels like just meters
away. It’s so loud it makes me jump, sends my heart racing.
freeze. What was that? A motorcycle engine? A chain saw? Motionless, I hold my
breath and listen. The only sounds are my pounding pulse, the insects, the
distant waves, a breeze through the leaves. All I see are shadows in hues of
green and blue and purple. I breathe out and take a tentative step down the
it thunders again, filling my ears, resounding through my body. The noise wakes
some primal fear in me. I barely resist the urge to run away at top speed.”
doesn’t say Zeeta was frightened. She starts with a pure description and lets
the reader connect through memories of being startled by an unexpected noise. Then
Zeeta strives to make sense of what she has heard, relating it to modern
mechanical sounds. Next comes a pause, a building of suspense. The reader
worries, so finally when the sound is heard again and Zeeta acknowledges primal
fear, the reader feels it too. The physical reactions serve as a drum beat for
the suspense of the scene.
Corinna and Zeeta have compelling voices. Their final responses, however, are unexpected.
How many of us wish to rule a cellar? How many people would “resist the urge”
to run after hearing a roar in the jungle?
descriptive emotional portrayals to ring true, the writer must first know how
their character will react to a situation. Furthermore, the writer must be
fluent in the character’s thinking patterns, so the response to the situation
can be uniquely expressed. If the writer begins with a familiar shared
experience, the reader can relate to the character. Once the writer has
convinced the reader to enter the mind of the character, the reader is willing
to supplement the text with memories and imaginings of the desired emotion.
character emotions is one of the most important and challenging aspects of
writing fiction. If the reader does not experience what the character is
feeling, the scene has failed. Physical reactions (pounding hearts, single
tears) tend to be over-used. Interior monologue may sound like an info dump or
excessive hand wringing.
I hardly feel qualified to discuss this topic, a friend convinced me to give a
short presentation on character emotions at an upcoming local SCBWI event
called the Mid-Mitten Meet Up. (Times and locations of meet ups can be found at
the SCBWI-MI website and on the SCBWI-MI Facebook page.) As I worked on my
presentation, I decided to expand it into a blog series. Then I was recruited
to do a guest post on the Mitten blog for SCBWI-MI.
My character emotion blog series will include posts on:
The Loch Ness Wood Duck we'd thought we'd spied near the Red Cedar River turns out to be a Mandarin duck. They are native to Asia, so my little friend at the back of the picture is a feral duck like the two in front. He's a beauty, and I'm glad I got to see him today. More information on Mandarin ducks can be found here. Better pictures can be found here.