Hybrid Emotions Create Fascinating Characters

For the longest time, I thought that bittersweet was the emotion reserved for funerals, particularly for people who had battled a debilitating disease for a long time (#cancersucks) or those who had lived a long, quality life.

But this past week, I had several moments of bittersweet. One came from realizing that my strengths are very much in written communication as I was able to write a civil but firm email notifying an employee that his services wouldn’t be needed, that I was able to make readers judging a sample of my writing cry in just ten pages. This strength, though, does not manifest itself well in big groups (introverts unite! quietly and in small groups) which means I am not the kind of person sought out at big public events. One came from coming home from that event to be greeted by my amazing kids who gave me big, strong hugs – the kind of embrace that little kids could never give. One came from working my last day at a job I’d thought would be my last job, to acknowledge that the exceptional friends I’d made in the past nine years would always hold a strong place in my heart, but that our different places of employment meant that our everyday conversation will naturally decrease.

Often, when we talk about the nuances of emotions, we consider what I like to call the preschool emotions:

  • angry
  • happy
  • sad
  • scared
  • surprised
  • silly
  • tired
We are good at depicting the nuances of anger, understand the fluctuations of happy, have varying levels of tolerance for the silly. But people are much more developed than these basic groupings suggest, and the only way that we can understand how to better convey these emotions in our characters is to understand the way they show up in ourselves, in the people around us. 

I have a friend who can talk to anyone. Easily. It takes her minutes to make a connection and people remember her for a long, long time. When I am with her, my reactions run from jealousy to relief that all those people don’t seek me out. Yes, those are in direct competition with each other. 
I have another friend who has signed a book deal for a really decent amount of money. There are parts of me that hope and long for that kind of recognition when I go on submission, and then I get stressed thinking about what it might be like to have that kind of recognition before even really starting. 
About a week ago, I received a text from my daughter. It had a short video link and included the text SORRY SORRY SORRY SORRY SOORRRYYY!!!! The video showed a decent sized crack in her viola and a strange thing happened to me. Frustration, yes. Concern over the extent of the damage and ease of repair, absolutely. But there was no anger. And for some people, that may seem strange, but I’m the kind of person who is quite prone to anger, and several months ago, and event like this would have launched me into a physiological sort of silent rage that would have been hardly noticeable to people around me, but would have completely occupied my thoughts, accelerated my heart rate, and set me off in to a lecture about taking care of things or getting rid of the things. 
But, you see, a few months ago, I was officially diagnosed with depression and started medication to help level me out. And in that moment when I was trying to sort through how to solve the problem, I realized what WASN’T happening. And in that moment, I was filled with gratitude that I got to live in a time when mental disorders aren’t a reason to lock up and ignore, but were seen as a reason to treat and nurture. This gratitude was further amplified because I had the good fortune to start with a medication and dosage that worked for me from the beginning, and that it was keeping me in a state that I could guide, correct and teach instead of lecture, guilt-trip and yell. 
So my challenge for your writers is to take time, daily or weekly at least, to reflect on your own unique mixture of emotions. How do they manifest? What do they feel like? How does the hybrid nature of your humanity merge together to create someone who is uniquely you? And how can you blend this complicated internalization to create character who are more fascinating? 

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

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