Creating Real Characters Through Responses

We’ve talked about Emotional Pacing before, and even had Five Tips for Writing with Emotion, yet it still seems that there are two major trends right now regarding character’s emotions. They are either kick-ass and hardcore, or reserved and quietly intriguing.

But when I think about the people I know in real life, I’m not sure there are any that fall into either category. 
Sure, there are lots of people who say that characters need to have more dramatic responses to the situations presented to them. Perhaps, but I think the spectrum of emotions available suggest we as writers could added a few more colors when we are shading our characters. 
For instance, I’m not really an emotional person. It’s rare that a commercial will make me cry, I don’t really know how to react around someone who is weeping, and things aren’t nearly as funny to me as YouTube views suggest they should be. However, when my emotional radar spikes, it is usually in anger. Does that make me emotional? Or how about the rest of the time, when things aren’t going well and I tend to get quiet – deliberately controlled? Emotional?
I’d like to argue that calling someone emotional should warrant more than simply prone to crying. And that, in all actuality, all characters are in fact emotional. 
1. Note their reactions.

I had the unfortunate experience a year ago of having a parent absolutely ream me for nearly an hour. If there was a name I could be called, I was. I held my hands in my lap, kept my voice steady and controlled, and maintained eye contact the whole time. By the time the parent left, I had seven minutes to shake the whole experience off and be ready to teach a class. I took a quick walk through the school, asked a secretary to raid her chocolate stash, and walked off the hurt angry tears in the privacy of the faculty room. By the time class started, my students had no idea there was an issue, because I was absolutely determined the parent would have no effect on me.
However, every time I see that student in the halls, fear and dread fill my whole being. These are things as novelists, we have the opportunity to convey that no other art allows. Take advantage of it.
2. Show the development of emotion.

In my writer’s group, I think all of us have been called out at least once on having written a character who laughed, cried, was uncertain and then angry too quickly. Even a teen in the midst of puberty can’t transition that quickly. Sure, in drafting mode, those quick words can act as markers for us, but if you tell me a person is angry, I’m going to say okay and move on with my life. 
In my opinion, this is the greatest necessity of the “Show-Don’t-Tell” mantra, but it can be difficult to depict emotions, to show what someone is feelings. There are a couple options. 
  • Ask someone to explain how they feel. 
  • Get yourself a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus
  • Find a quiet place where you can be alone and feel, paying attention to physical markers.
3. Watch more people experience more emotions.
This can be via other media or through out of the house experiences. When you go to the grocery store, try (in the most uncreepy way possible) to determine what people are feeling based on how they look. What’s the difference between a worried fast walk and a mad fast walk and a I-only-have-five-minutes fast walk? Is someone yelling out of anger, to warn or to be heard by someone who is hearing impaired (either because of hearing loss or adolescence)?
What are you pet peeves about character development? What books have you read lately have have great character development?

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

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