Have you ever been working on a first draft and written down something where you had to stop and say, “Whoa! Where did that come from?”
I’m not talking about being so overly impressed with your own ability to write prose, I’m talking about moments where characters give voice to an emotion you didn’t realize you had. You’re going through a tough time financially or emotionally (or finacially AND emotionally), and out of nowhere you’re confronted with a scene where a character screams out, “I just want to be able to stop worrying about how I’m going to pay for the kids’ lunches next week!”
Suddenly, you’re staring your beleaguered emotional self in the eyes when you thought you were just taking a little time to escape into your story. How did that happen?!
Of course, we know that our emotions don’t just disappear when we turn to writing, even if we wish they would. In fact, it’s our own emotions that make our writing more powerful. Art is a living, moving thing. Without emotion, you’re just writing instruction manuals. They may serve a purpose, but they sure ain’t fun to read.
Beta-Testing Real Life
I’ve recently become enamored with the works of Cory Doctorow. Mr. Doctorow is a big sci-fi fan and a techie at heart, so his sensibilities especially appeal to me. In a recent interview with Wired, Doctorow stated that he used his characters to sometimes “beta-test” ideas that he had for handling problems. If the solution seemed feasible in his fictional universe, then perhaps the idea could work in real life.
We face emotion in our writing every time we sit down at the computer, but we actually have the power to do something about the problems facing our characters. If we’re true to our stories and we take the process seriously, then we’ll have to come up with credible solutions.
I like to write big sci-fi adventures, but it would seem as if there isn’t much room to apply solutions to real life problems.
The same may be true for your writing. You may not be an Indiana Jones or a Lara Croft in your day-to-day living. You don’t live in Victorian England or the 24th century, so not all your proposed problems in your story will be relevant to your life.
But the emotions… Ah, yes, the emotions can apply. You can express your frustration, your sorrow, your joy, your child-like sense of enthusiasm. You can let those emotions flow on the page, and you can watch as they crash into the rocks of resistance. And then, you have to decide how to overcome that resistance. You can finally write the conversation you’ll have with the bully at your work or at your parent-teacher organization. You can write out honest responses to those who would doubt your dreams. You can share the depth of your sorrow with those who would just tell you to get over your hurts and ignore your past.
You can express yourself.
The Warning Signs
Before baring your emotions to the world, you’ll want to keep in mind a few words of caution. Emotions can either derail or enrich your story, so make sure you’re getting the most out of them.
1. Keep your character’s motivation in mind when expressing emotion in your story. — Do your character’s emotions make sense, or are they just a reflection of what you’re feeling at the moment?
The problem with including personal emotion in story is that we can become too attached. We argue the emotions are “true,” so they have to stay there. Just remember, you’re writing a character. Your struggles still aren’t exactly the same, no matter how similar you are to your character.
Remember, the reader only knows about the world you present in your story. If you pull too much from your life, then you run the risk of leaving the reader without any sense of context in the life and world of the character.
2. Your emotional struggles may not be very entertaining. — Sure, your emotions are real, and you need to find a way to deal with them. Your readers may not be able to relate, or they might find the issue boring. I might struggle with coding a website for the day. I can try to convey that to my wife, but she just isn’t deeply interested. She cares about me, but the problems and, to some extent, the emotions connected don’t resonate.
Get an editor or proofreaders to help you figure out which emotions are the most important and the most resonant for your audience.
3. Watch out for the “everyone lives happily ever after.” — When we put our characters through a rigorous ordeal, rich with emotion and strife, we have to make sure that our characters earn the solution they find. As much as it would help in the storytelling process at times, tough problems rarely just “get better” all on their own. (That would make for some pretty boring stories. Right?)
We can’t make the solutions too simple for our characters after they’ve been pouring their hearts out through the course of the entire story. This may mean that your character gradually solves a problem. He or she may have to leave a situation or have a showdown with someone. Emotion means that things are building up, and there has to be some sort of release to allow emotions like peace and happiness to enter the picture.
Your Emotional Journey
Keep these warnings in mind, and your emotions can serve you in telling richer stories.
How has your experience been with tying in strong emotions to your writing? Do you feel like it got you off track? Have you ever been surprised by your emotions while writing? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Michael W. Roberts just finished the rough draft of his first novel and was surprised by how emotional he got over it. He works extensively in web media, and he blogs about writing, creativity, and communication on his site http://MichaelWRoberts.com
This blog post is Copyright Michael W Roberts 2013. All rights are reserved Internationally. You may not reproduce it in any form, in part of whole, without the author’s prior written permission. That includes usage in forms such as print, audio and digital imaging including pdf, jpg, png etc. A fee may be requested for re-use if it is for a commercial venture. The train sign photo is owned by pj_in_oz on Flickr and the electrocution sign by r000pert. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.