We want our reader to feel our character’s joy, pain and everything in between.
But one of the surest ways to sever the reader’s emotional connection is to be overly direct about how a character feels.
How many times have you read something like this?
Susan screamed with terror.
His heart palpitated as he climbed the attic stairs.
My heart plummeted with grief.
Flannery O’Connor once said that as writers, we can’t create emotion with emotion. We have to provide it with a body; we have to create a world with weight and extension.
In other words, before an emotion can take on imaginative weight and substance, it must be embodied in the world of the real. A world the reader can see, hear, smell, touch, taste and inhabit.
We’re hardwired to respond emotionally to the world via our senses.
This is just as true for the world you create on the page. When you appeal to your reader’s senses, you blast through his intellect to his most primitive emotions.
The Biology of Emotion
Neuroscientist Paul MacLean says the human brain “amounts to three interconnected biological computers”, each with its own “special intelligence” and neural machinery. For now, we’re just going to focus on two of those: the outer brain known as the neocortex, and the deeper layer, the limbic system, which resides in the spinal cord.
The neocortex allows us to reason, to contemplate, to reach intellectual insights and process abstractions. To this brain words like fear and love mean something. But while the neocortex can understand the concept of fear or love, it cannot feel it. This top layer is not capable of producing a physical response, a gut reaction.
It’s the limbic system, the most ancient layer of our brain, that generates “strong or particularly vivid emotions.” This brain takes in information through the ﬁve senses, then produces a wide variety of sense responses within the body. It’s capable of feeling anger, fear, desire, love, exhilaration, awe, grief and a host of other subtle emotions.
When a reader feels heartbreak for your character, or anger at another, when she dreads what might happen in the near empty parking lot of the mall at night, it’s a limbic response. It’s irrational. Instinctual. Physical.
Surely this is what Vladimir Nabokov meant when he said:
“Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”
Bring your characters’ emotions out of the analytical, away from the general, beyond the abstract.
Slip inside your characters’ consciousness and render a world for them to inhabit. A world full of textures, colors, odors, sights, sounds.
Take a look at this excerpt from Elizabeth McCracken’s novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again. In this passage, Mose is grieving his young daughter’s tragic death.
The baby had wandered out of the house. Look: a beautiful shimmering heart in the backyard, glittering romance to a baby girl. There were always little wavelets in our pool, the water holding coins of light between its fingers. The baby doesn’t know the difference between water and light, unless it’s on her skin: one is cold, and the other warm, but how can you tell if you don’t touch? So she tries to touch. She is a magpie; she steals all the shiny things in the house and hides them in her bed, butter knives and costume jewelry and the foil from packs of cigarettes. She walks to the edge of the pool. She doesn’t look around. She doesn’t know this is forbidden. She leans over the water, and now the flash is beyond her reach, so she leans farther, and she is so small there is no splash, and she is so round that she floats, and she is so surprised that she does nothing, nothing at all, and when her mother finds her — only minutes later, says the doctor — she is still floating, little jellyfish, greedy little jellyfish, her hands empty and her face, when they turn her over, disappointed.
Let’s unwrap this passage to see what it can teach us.
1. Resist Telling Us How Your Character Feels.
Saying Mose is sad or grief stricken tells us virtually nothing about how he feels. And it short-circuits our natural urge to fill in the unsaid. The author never directly states how Mose feels. Instead she creates concrete images which our limbic brain translates into an alchemy of emotions. We don’t need to be told Mose’s heart is breaking. Ours is breaking. And that’s all that matters.
2. Avoid Emotional Cliches.
McCracken doesn’t give Mose rivulets of tears, a sinking heart or guttural cries. We expect him to weep, to feel agonizing loss. Which renders it unnecessary on the page.
Instead she juxtaposes the tragic circumstances with images of dappling light. She also spares us the potentially melodramatic moment of the little girl’s death by having Mose imagine the event through the little girl’s perspective. It’s a tender moment full of glitter and baby girl romance. It’s not grim or dark, something we might expect.
So when writing your own emotional moments, rather than use a gray rainy day to convey sadness, or a sunny day full of birdsong to mirror happiness, try flipping it around. How might a grieving father interpret birds?
3. Think Large. Write Small.
Mose’s grief is embodied in the small details. Not large dramatic displays of emotion. What raises this passage to an emotional pitch is the attention given to small specific details – butter knives and costume jewelry and the foil from packs of cigarettes, all the particular objects his little girl stole and stashed in her bed. Notice how emotionally restrained this passage is. It’s the details that give us access to Mose’s interior. It’s what brings us beyond the facts and surface events directly into the world of emotion.
4. Recreate Your Character’s Experience.
One of the things that’s so striking about this passage is the sudden switch to present tense as Mose imagines the unimaginable. The sentence rhythm also modulates between short and long sentences. The last sentence in particular is breathless and urgent. This all correlates to the shock and trauma, a masterful way of showing, not telling.
The takeaway here: filter emotion through your characters’ consciousness. Recreate their experience and you’ll draw the reader directly into that experience.
When we draw the reader into the experience, we create more intimacy between reader and story. We don’t just convey the emotion, which is a great feat in itself, we instantly transfer that emotion to the reader. Hopefully with a little spine tingle thrown in.