Crafting Emotional Resonance: Part 2 – Character Reactions

Welcome back to the “crafting emotional resonance” series! This week’s topic is character reactions. How can the reactions of your characters to their surroundings, circumstances, and other characters really connect emotionally with your readers?

Dialogue

For many writers (myself included), dialogue is a character’s first response–especially if their reaction is to another character. Dialogue is a great tool for revealing character voice, motivation, and goals in a scene. When it’s done well, that is.

I’ll go into dialogue in more depth in a future article, so for now I’ll do my best to summarize.

Dialogue requires nuance. People rarely say exactly what they mean when they mean it. We pad our words, shape the implication of our sentences, or withhold information altogether. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes subconscious (another topic I’ll be covering in this series), but it means that on-the-nose dialogue feels clunky and overly easy to readers.

As you’re shaping scenes or editing your dialogue, ensure that your characters are not only speaking in voice–which should influence how much they do or don’t talk as well as how they talk–but that you’re utilizing subtext (what they’re saying without saying it) and nuance as well. Again, more on dialogue in a future post.

Still trying to find your character’s voice? Check out my list of character voice questions to find their tone and worldview!

Non-Verbal Cues

Character reactions are not limited to words. Words are important, but so are tone of voice and body language. In fact, non-verbal cues can speak even louder than words–whether movement communicates more than dialogue, supports the dialogue, or conflicts with the words coming out of your characters’ mouths. Everything from posture to eye contact (or lack thereof) to general movement to interaction with the setting (as discussed in last week’s post) to any other number of non-verbal cues can influence your reader’s perception of a scene and the emotions within it.

Your character’s posture may communicate how they’re feeling in a given scene–if they’re shifting impatiently, standing straight and confident, tensely crouched in anticipation of attack, arms crossed and posture broad to intimidate another character, etc. And this may not only reflect their current emotion, but also history or a worldview that leads to that feeling in this particular setting. A character standing confidently at a state dinner will have a very different story from a character who’s slouched against the wall uncaring or yet another character whose leg won’t stop bouncing under the table because they’re terrified.

Eye contact can be another great indicator of a character’s interests or feelings in a scene. Are they locked in on their conversation partner? Is this to the exclusion of another participant in the conversation? Are their eyes wandering for something else to do or someone else to talk to? Are they distracted by someone else without even consciously realizing? If they’re not making eye contact, is it due to disinterest, lack of confidence, or training?

Movement in general can reflect your character. Is your character generally very contained and still? Or do they move around more by nature? Does your soldier character instinctively reach toward his hip for a gun or sword when startled? Does your pianist play melodies on her leg when she’s bored or distracted? Or maybe your character just tilts her head or shifts her weight into one leg when she’s thinking, or another tugs on his beard when he’s uncomfortable, or your more nervous character is constantly wiping his sweaty palms on his jeans.

In order for your characters to feel real rather than stiff (unless the character is meant to be stiff), they should be moving around and interacting with the setting, events, and characters around them. Your characters should be more than cutouts and your setting should be more than a backdrop; the two should interact with one another to the development of both.

Broader Responses

To this point I’ve mostly highlighted writing responses to specific situations. But responses to recurring, general scenarios are also important to consider.

What generally happens when your character is sad or angry? Does your character isolate themselves? Do they take their frustration out on those around them? Do they forget to eat (or consciously ignore the need)? Do they cry? Scream? Blast music through the house?

How are these responses the same or different when their surroundings are different? Do they hide their frustration when their friends are around and let it out at home later? Do they just not care? Or would they normally care, but the pressure is too much and they explode anyway? What emotions arise from that?

Considering your characters’ habitual responses to general emotions and stressors will give you a baseline to work from and can add interest to scenarios in which their habitual response garners an unusual response.

Character voice isn’t just dialogue, either! The character voice questions address subjects like confidence and worldview, too, that shape their overall behavior. Sign up to check out the list below!

What Does This Look Like?

At the end of this series, I want to provide an example of how to apply the concepts I’m talking about to an actual scene. As such, I would like to open the floor to you to send in an excerpt you’d like critiqued! You’ll get to see how these principles are applied, how I personally edit, and some ways these principles can strengthen your scene. If you’re up for it, shoot me an excerpt and the name you’d like attached to it (or tell me you’d rather have it critiqued anonymously) and I’ll make my commentary on it for the final post in this series!

Submit here!


Comment below! Which of these points do you struggle with most? Which comes easiest? I challenge you to apply just one of these tips to a scene you’re writing or editing this week and let me know how it goes!

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