Wednesday, August 29, 2012

emotions & realistic characters

I believe one of the things I struggle with most as a writer is to create relatable and believable emotion in my characters. Using the old adage of "show don't tell" you can't get away with being lazy and writing "Winnie was happy when Sam came in the room." Rather, "Butterflies danced low in Winnie's belly as she heard the door creak open and glanced up. Sam stood silhouetted in the door frame, his tall, lanky frame unmistakable, and Winnie couldn't help the enormous smile that pressed her cheeks all the way up to the corners of her eyes as she rushed over to him." Or, you know, something like that (it's early, I haven't been sleeping very well - sue me). To write emotions, we must feel emotions ourselves and recognize not only what they are, but how to describe them.

As a normal human being, I feel a hundred different emotions on any given day. Sadness, happiness, joy, despair, anger. It's my job to filter those down, figure those out, use what I need, and suppress the rest. 

I do that a lot -- suppressing, especially when I'm faced with extreme emotion that I don't know how to deal with. I remember two winters ago I flew home because my mother was extremely sick and was in critical care at the emergency room. Two days later she was going in for very risky surgery and my parents were asked to sign all those forms that you see people sign on TV but never actually think you'll ever be faced with yourself.

That morning, before the surgery, my dad and I went to the cafeteria for breakfast. He didn't really eat. I don't remember what I got. Cereal, maybe? I do remember thinking everything felt so weird, because I wasn't nervous or upset or sad or angry. I just was. When my dad became emotional and asked "What the hell is wrong with you, don't you feel anything? Aren't you even concerned at all?" I didn't have an answer for him.

Having never been faced with a potential life altering situation before, I didn't know what I was doing or what I was feeling. I didn't know what was wrong with me. Now I do.

Now I know at that point in time when the pressure of everything got to be too much I just sort of shut down and went on auto pilot while my brain tried to glide by saying all the right things and going through all the right motions, while everything I really felt got suppressed way down inside.

Some people call that shock, I suppose. Maybe others call it not being able to cope in that moment. Which I know I wasn't. Coping, that is.

There have been two situations in my entire life where I felt like that, and they sucked. They sucked worse than anything else has sucked in my entire twenty six years.

It's funny, but in one situation I regret not saying enough. In the other I said too much.

I over compensated for feeling nothing, for shutting down, for not knowing what to do, and over compensated by being too kind. Oh, the things I would say now if I could go back in time... But sometimes being too kind is better than being too cruel. After all, you can't regret kind words but people always, even if it's the next day or a year from now, regret being cruel. At least I hope they do. 

Realizing these things is important, not only to grow as a person, but to know that You Are Okay. And that Your Reaction Is Normal. Maybe it's not what other people would go through, maybe it's not what they would do, but normal nevertheless because the funny thing about life altering changes, whether they be terrible tragedies or great joys, is that there is no precedent. No rule book on how you should feel, or what you should say. And if there is no rule book for you, then you bet your bottom dollar there is no rule book for the other person, or people, involved. 

So things happen. I like to think they happen for a reason. In A Brooding Beauty, Catherine and Marcus go through years of angst and heart ache before they (SPOILER, YA'LL!) finally come together. Had they not had those years of separation, they would not have been able to form the strong bond they eventually did. And had I not been able to flesh out all those painful things that they were feeling and make the reader feel them as well, the bond and the love they felt at the end would have fallen flat. 

I think an important thing to remember as a writer is that emotions often conflict. You can feel heart wrenching, curl up on the bed and sob sorrow while you're battling rage. You can feel breath taking excitement and mind numbing fear. You can want to beat someone over the head and still love them. It's a constant tug-of-war, which needs to be addressed and reflected in your main character about something, whether it be if she should forgive her father for abandoning her emotionally after his wife's death (After Ever) or coming to terms with the notion that she isn't as strong as she thinks she is when she leaves her best friend behind to die (Pitch). 

You also need to remember that people are not Bad or Good, but an intricate combination of the two. Don't be afraid to write flaws. No one is perfect, especially not your MC, however much you want him or her to be. You might think one thing of your character, only to find out a whole other side down the road. Learn from the change, figure out why it happened, and let it go. There is nothing else you can do but move on. 

And now, because I need a good laugh in my life...



1 comment: