Welcome 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.
One 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.
Ann 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 vicariously.
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 novel.
“It 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.
The 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.”
The 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.
In Laura Resau’s, The Jade Notebook, seventeen-year-old Zeeta describes a sound she hears while walking alone in a Mexican jungle at night.
“And 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.
I 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 path.
Then 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.”
Reseau 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.
Both 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?
For 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.
Expressing character emotion posts:
Describe what the character experiences (here)