Last week I talked about the importance of your characters’ reactions to the people and situations around them as a tool to connect their emotions with your readers. I talked about how to write those reactions in general, from the character’s perspective. But your characters won’t always be aware of what they’re feeling—or how they’re expressing it. Writing about those surprise emotions and responses is the topic of today’s post!
Expressions and emotions that your character isn’t aware of—or simply isn’t acknowledging—require you to dive into more subtle expressions, or make use of other characters’ responses to your MC’s (or POV character’s) expressions.
J.H. Moore talked about this latter option in a workshop she hosted a while back; she used the example of the MC pulling an expression and a side character pointing it out with something along the lines of, “What was that face?” Your MC/POV character might have no idea they were making a face, and the side character’s response can then lead to a realization—and a reaction to the main character’s own expression. Don’t forget that your main character can react to themselves just as much as they can react to external features of the story.
The same can be true of tone of voice. I once gave my fiancé the impression I disliked someone because I disliked a situation and that came out in my tone while I was talking about someone involved. Tone can be misheard or misconstrued, which can foster conflict or simple confusion on the part of one or both involved characters. Your POV character might realize they said something wrong as soon as it comes out of their mouth… or they might need a nearby character to point out their blunder. Which will lead you back to conscious character reactions differing from character to character, as discussed last week.
Another point exemplified by the scenario with my fiancé is that sometimes emotions from one area can spill into another scenario. When emotions go unresolved, they may come through in unexpected but related ways—for instance, while Character A is angry at Character B for forgetting an anniversary, they might be more prone to express annoyance or be passive aggressive about behavior that has nothing to do with the actual issue of the missed anniversary. In such cases, the response is still related to its root cause: the person involved serves as the common denominator.
In other cases, however, the emotion simply leads to tension applied to unrelated situations. If your character is upset about the absence of another character, they might not realize they’re upset about it—or those around them might not notice they’re upset about it—until they have a disproportionate outburst over a petty annoyance.
Consider how pent-up emotion may affect your character, and how it may differ from source to source. Are they more likely to be broadly upset when they’re lonely? Or perhaps when they feel something unjust has happened? Or does their emotion hone in on the source of the issue in those scenarios, leading to minimal spill-over?
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Another question to ask is whether your character is personally aware when tension is spilling over into other areas or whether those around them have to challenge them before they realize what’s happening.
When Your Characters Know… But Don’t Know They Know
Often, a character will know when something is bothering them… but they might not slow down enough to acknowledge it. When that happens, you get to really put your writing skills to use with word choice and subtext.
If your character is preoccupied with, say, a love interest, they may be more prone to think of things in terms of that love interest. They may hear particular song lyrics and apply them to the love interest, seek out ways to be close to the love interest without realizing, bring up the love interest as their default topic of conversation, offer anecdotes based on the love interest… etc. This is another thing that your character may or may not be initially aware of. Preoccupations can be pointed out by other characters, or you can leave clues for the reader to piece together before the light bulb flashes on for the POV character. (And, of course, this can apply to any sort of preoccupation. Another character, a stressful situation, a problem the character can’t seem to solve, a goal ahead of them, etc., etc.)
Choosing your words carefully to tie back to whatever your character is feeling without knowing they’re feeling it—especially in editing—is an expert way to get your reader to feel along with your character without needing your character to be obvious with their emotions. Is smoke “circling” the room while your character dreams of Christmastime? Why not have it “wreathe” the room instead?
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These sorts of tips are applicable whether your character is completely oblivious to their feelings, can feel that there’s something going on internally but can’t figure out what, or know exactly what they’re feeling and just don’t want to face it.
Once you know what your characters are feeling and whether or not they’re aware of it, there’s a fairly minimal difference in what tools you can use to reveal those feelings to the reader. This post is really more of an extension of last week’s than anything exceptionally new, so do return to that post if you missed it or just want a refresher on different types of character reactions you can use—or if you want to submit a piece to be critiqued at the end of this series!
What did you find most helpful about this series entry? Is there anything you’d like to see expanded? What is your biggest struggle when writing character emotion? Comment below!