Creating Character Emotions is Awesome

Most how-to fiction-writing books I’ve read — and I’ve read a bunch — are bad, worse, or useless. A few have helped me tremendously, however, and they don’t fall in either the pathetic HOW TO WRITE A BESTSELLING NOVEL category (an actual title!) or in the John Gardner “Does anyone actually read this?” category. The three I’m thinking of lie in the Woah, this is useful! category that makes it worthwhile to occasionally visit that slightly embarrassing WRITING REFERENCE section of the bookstore.

Novelist and short story writer Ann Hood (Wikipedia entry; Blog), who teaches at The New School and whose latest novel is The Red Thread, wrote one of the three how-to books I prize. It’s titled Creating Character Emotions.

Creating Character Emotions cover

A Rectangular Read

After opening with an essay on writing about emotion, the book gives 36 short chapters, each focusing on a separate emotion — Anger; Anxiety; Apathy; Confusion; etc. — in a specific pattern: a short essay discussing the particular feeling, bad examples of its description in fiction (with discussion), good examples (with discussion), and exercises. (Myself, I always ignore exercises; I have enough writing projects of my own! So I can’t speak for or against her exercises.)

Here’s ANXIETY.

  • Excerpt of the first part, the mini-essay:

    Anxiety comes from matters large and small. Anxiety is worrying to an extreme.

  • Excerpt of the second part, the bad examples:

    “Would that doctor ever come out? Jon wondered. He bit his nails and tapped his foot nervously.” […] Nail biting, foot tapping, fingers drumming, sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, a trickle of sweat, and pacing are all tired ways to show anxiety.

  • Third excerpt, one of the good examples (from Thom Jones‘s short story “I Want to Live!”:

    “But those people in the hospital rooms, gray and dying, that was her. Could such a thing be possible? To die? Really? Yes, at some point she guessed you did die. But her? Now? So soon? With so little time to get used to the idea?”

  • Fourth, one of the exercises:

    Choose a seemingly minor reason to produce anxiety, such as an invitation to a party, running out of hot water, a rainy day, and write a one-page scene in which a character obsesses on that concern. Be sure the character’s anxiety level rises as the scene progresses. Objective: To tap into the heart of anxiety. Even a small thing can cause great panic.

Too often I see in fiction the “He bit his nails”-type shortcut to expressing emotion — in fact, I don’t think these shortcuts express emotion at all, except for inexperienced readers or for characters with really important nails (what about biting the kind of nails you put into walls?). I think those shortcuts — “He bit his nails” — are, unless the writer’s really trying to speed a paragraph along or some such, simply announcements to readers’ left brains (so to speak) that amount to “Oh, the story is informing me that this character is anxious.” The shortcuts become mere info to process, sort of like a bus route chart: no emotion there.

Whereas a description of anxiety that startles or wounds or points uniquely will force readers out of complacency and keep them engaged in reading which is an active process of creating an experience in the mind. The Thom Jones example above makes readers (me at least) worry about suddenly learning of their own impending deaths. The bad example is just data, better suited to a computer than a person. CAVEAT SCRIPTOR: Don’t ditch all physiological ways of showing emotion, of course, unless you want your characters to represent disembodiment.

By the way, some writers/critiquers subsume the above advice under the precept “Don’t tell readers what to think.” That precept, I think, is imprecise. If a writer says “He wandered the hours away by the bank of a brook, watching the sun on the face of the chuckling water. A bird came to circle him, flew unafraid through the aura of gladness about him. The delicate tip of a wing brushed his wrist with the touch of the first secret kiss from the hands of Bianca” he should first win an award, but anyway, he is, in fact, telling readers what to think — at least to some degree — he’s commanding THINK OF A BIRD; and THINK OF A TIP OF A WING, etc. So drop the precept, people!

And buy Ann Hood’s book!

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