Expressing 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.
In Julie Berry’s All 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.
“There’s nothing so bright as the stream by day, nothing so black on a moonless night.
I 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.”
This 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.
In 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.
Obviously 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.
“Both know the southern way of talking
without words, remember when
the heat of summer
could melt the mouth,
so southerners stayed quiet
looked out over the land,
nodded at what seemed like nothing
but that silent nod said everything
anyone needed to hear.
Here in Ohio, my mother and Grace
of too much air between words, are happy
just for another familiar body in the room.”
Woodson 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 emotions.
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.
“She 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 half-people.”
Any 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.
I’ll 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 entertained.”
Expressing character emotion posts:
Unique characters (here)