Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, October 22, 2013 13 comments
A phrase popularly associated with psychotherapy might be one of the best tools to developing a character your readers will consistently engage with. Keep it at the ready, especially when the plot thickens and action scenes become more frequent. Because those are the places where you'll be most tempted to leave your character's emotions behind. Places where your character is actually likely to have his or her most interesting interior world changes.

Call it your emotional pulse-check tool. Repeat after me:

Photo credit: anitapeppers from morguefile.com
"How does that make you feel?"

Your character has just met someone.
"How does that make you feel?"
The character's first impression might be fear, lust, or sudden peacefulness. Let that reaction come out in her posture, her attitude-filled thoughts, and/or her dialogue.

An obstacle arises. 
"How does that make you feel?" 
The character might react as decisively as you hope, but perhaps he naturally feels beleaguered at first. Unsure. Afraid. Wishing someone would advise or help. Moments like this separate realistic characters from the Mary Sues and Gary Stus, who never waver or falter--the kinds of characters who make readers roll their eyes and say "seriously? nobody really thinks like that."

An important battle is lost.
"How does that make you feel?"  
Watch where your character's heart leans in times of defeat. Is he first of all peevish because of wounded pride? Does his concern go first to his fallen or injured friends? Or is he righteously indignant that the evil ones prevailed and are free to continue hurting others? Don't assume a stock answer. Let your character reveal himself in all his complexity. Perhaps your hero is more narcissistic than he wants to believe, and realizing he over-values his personal pride could become a turning point in his emotional journey.

A love object declares his adoration. 
"How does that make you feel?"
If there have been numerous obstacles keeping your couple apart, let the heroine process them in a moment like this. Then the obstacles won't feel like annoying contrivances the mean author threw in their path for spite. Let her be stunned or tongue-tied, or even sarcastic and lashing out. No one believably does a 180 degree turn in an instant. The turn happens in smaller increments, often with some regression to old positions.

As I mentioned in the opening, be especially aware of incorporating emotion into action scenes. Clashing swords alone are not nearly so tense as when you can feel one of the sword-wielder's sweaty palms or icy surges of blood-lust. You wouldn't want to stop for a full-blown flashback, but flashes of back-story snippets can be extremely effective for making emotionally realistic action, especially when portraying a traumatized character.

Keep checking your character's emotional pulse throughout the story. Look for opportunities to work in
~physical responses, including gestures and emotion-based sensations
~attitudes, expressed in thought or speech
~processing, both logical and emotional

How might frequent emotional pulse-checks help you improve your story?

13 comments:

  1. Great post, and I see you changed your look around here! I like it! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jessica. That was my big project recently.

      Delete
  2. Replies
    1. Yep. It needed a look that more clearly communicated genre.

      Delete
  3. I've been trying to do this more and more. It really does help.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My favorite revision resource (Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon) notes that most manuscripts tend to be thin. In particular, writers skimp on emotional responses.

      Delete
  4. Great advice here, Laurel. It's important to keep track of our character's emotional arcs.

    Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. Often when I'm revising, I find that scenes that feel a little flat are because I've left the characters' emotions behind. Pulse checks help fix that.

      Delete
  5. Great post! I always refer to character development as psychoanalysis. I totally agree with your advice!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Love it. Yeah, I find that much of my best research comes from reading books on psychology. Gainin a better understanding of human nature helps get me unstuck nine times out of ten.

      Delete
  6. I love your new cover! (actually, I loved the old one, too. The old one said a little more about the story, but the new photograph is so evocative). Also, love your new website look!

    Gary Stus made me laugh.. haven't heard the male version of Mary Sue before. But, seriously, this was a good article, a good reminder, esp. with my NaNo project about to start!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My old cover image is now an interior illustration, so I didn't jettison it entirely. But the new look I hope communicates YA literary better and intrigues readers too. Evocative is good, right?

      I picked up Gary Stu from the TV tropes site. Funny, right? Hope this does indeed help you with NaNo. Keep taking pulses and you'll keep generating material. :-)

      Delete