Writing With Heart: Creating an Emotionally Engaging Character

Heart

 

Someone recently asked me about writing with emotion.  This is really about creating the emotionally engaging character because if you don’t write emotion into your character, the reader won’t connect with that character on an emotional level.  It’s hard to explain the difference between a great story and an emotionally satisfying story because the distinction is subtle.

 

Write With Your Heart = Showing
Emotion-driven writing isn’t about telling your reader what your character is feeling.  Something like, “She was afraid she’d fail the test” is telling the reader what the character is feeling.  It’s also more than simple actions like gulping or trembling or crying.  Those things are all about writing at the head level.  It’s skimming the surface of the emotional journey your character is going through.

Emotion-driven writing is delving deep within the character and being right there in the moment, going through everything your character is as the character is going through it.  It’s writing at a heart level.  You don’t have to tell the reader what the character is feeling or doing.  You show it.

That’s the distinction between head writing and heart writing.  Head writing involves telling.  Heart writing involves showing.  If you can understand the difference between telling vs. showing, you will have an easier time understanding the concept of writing an emotionally engaging character.

 

Two Exercises To Try
The best way I can think of to explain the concept of showing is through two exercises, one that gives you a negative experience and the other a positive one.  You need to embrace both the good and bad when you are writing in your character’s point of view.  A character needs to be third-dimensional in order to effectively engage with the reader (characters who are all good or all bad tend to be boring, too…at least in my opinion).

When you’re doing these exercises, write in first person.  The closer you are to these emotions, the better you can understand how to show (instead of tell) when you’re writing your story.  I encourage you to write these out as if you were writing a scene in a book.  Include dialogue.  Include actions.  Include feelings.  Pretend you are writing a play-by-play account from a time in your own life.

If (for any reason) you cannot handle doing the exercises below (esp. #1) because it’ll make things too hard on you, don’t do them.

 

Exercise #1:
Close your eyes and remember a time in your life when you were afraid.  Really scared.  What was happening?  What were you doing How were you feeling? What did the other person say or do, and how did that make you feel?  What were you thinking?  How did things progress?  Go into detail.  Don’t gloss over any of it.  You want to get so deep into the moment, you’re going through it all over again.  Write down everything as it happened, and when you’re done, end it with how things ended.  Were things resolved?  Were they left unfinished? (And how do you feel about that?)

Now, take a break until you relax and feel better.  If you delved deep into this aspect of your past, you’ll be worked up.  This is what you should experience when your character is scared, by the way. When my characters are scared, I’m scared with them.  🙂

 

Exercise #2:
Close your eyes again, but this time remember a time in your life when you were happy.  This is the happiest moment of your life.  What was happening?  What were you doing?  How did your actions make you feel?  How did the actions of others around you make you feel?  What was being said and done?  Who was doing and saying what.  Explain everything in detail.  And how did it end?

 * * *

I purposely ended with a good emotion because it’s easier to walk away from a good memory than a bad one.  But the point in the two exercises is to think of how you’re writing when you’re in your story.  Also, think about how your body reacted as you wrote out the two exercises?  Go ahead and write down what happened with your body.  Did you shiver?  Did you warm up?  Did you smile?  Did you frown?  Did your eyebrows furrow?  Did you grimace?  Did you wince?  Did you look behind you because you thought you heard something (this would apply to #1).  Did your heartbeat change?  Etc, etc…

 

Tune Into Your Body’s Cues
Go into each and every single emotion with your character.  Be on the journey with them.  Good or bad, explore all of it.  Let your body react.  If your character is mad, you will probably feel your heart rate increase and your breathing go faster.  Maybe you frown or grow tense.  If your character is embarrassed, your face should get warm.  If your character is hungry, you should get that familiar hunger pain.  If your character is excited, you should be smiling.  If your character finds something funny, you should either smile or laugh.  If your character is in love, you should have a light feeling in your chest and smile (at least little bit).

Your body reacts to emotions you feel.  When your body is reacting to what your character is feeling, you are showing. You are in the moment with your character.  You are connecting on an emotional level with your reader.  You are writing with your heart.  This is the aim of showing.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Ruth Ann Nordin . Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors was founded by Ruth Ann Nordin and Stephannie Beman in an effort to create a website dedicated to helping the self-publisher or those thinking of self-publishing to learn about the self-publishing business. Check out more articles of theirs here.

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26 thoughts on “Writing With Heart: Creating an Emotionally Engaging Character”

  1. I think my own emotions, experiences and observations of specific people around me inform my characters. It helps me to feel for them and with them.

    I wonder if we can write fiction without living life first.

    Thank you for this helpful and informative post.

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  2. When deciding between “head writing” and “heart writing,” it’s important to remember that not all scenes carry the same emotional weight. If we want specific parts to impact the reader, then we should write from the heart; if not, then from the head. To me, that’s the biggest difference between showing and telling: knowing when to employ each technique. Thanks for the excellent post!

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  3. I keep a “writing journal” for this very reason – not to talk about writing, or to spec stuff out, but to write about my day. To write about my feelings IN the moment of feeling them and to remind myself how I am human. It’s a great resource to look back on when I’m trying to mine a certain emotion for a character. I can look back on days in which I felt something very specific and pull from that moment accurately.

    I do agree with Linda Lee though, that not all scenes need to be “from the heart” and too much showing/internal storm can result in the book coming off like a telenova. It takes a good writer to know when to use each technique!

    Great post!

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  4. My almost-finished-work-in-progress has some emotionally intense scenes. My main character’s personality is nothing like my own, so I have to think about how SHE feels and how SHE will react to situations, not how I would feel or react. She is someone who tries to shut down her emotions and pretend nothing is bothering her until it gets to be too much. Then her fight-or-flight mechanism takes over and whichever one she chooses determines where the story goes next.

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  5. Something that helps me – and maybe this is from what dabbling I did in theatre – is, physically playing out the scene. It sounds a bit silly, but I will physically “act” out the scene between characters, and block it out so I know when my character should stand up or sit down or cross the room. It might seem a bit labourous, and quite insane, but it’s what works for me. When I’m unable to physically get up to play it out (because, let’s face it, I don’t do all my writing at home), I’ll go through it in my head as intensely as I can, and sometimes will mouth the dialogue. Sounds crazy, but it works for me!

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  6. I’ve been working so hard on “showing” instead of “telling” that I think I have overdone it. Intense emotion is good at pivotal points but trying to maintain that emotional high in every scene lessens the impact of them all. After sixteen years of dedicated writing I still have a lot to learn.

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  7. Great post! I find that when I began showing instead of telling my writing improve drastically. I have also heard that how sentences are structured can help convey an emotion. The idea that short choppy sentences can create a sense of a faster pace and thus might be useful when wanting to write the emotions of fear or excitement.

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  8. Those were some really creative exercises. I love the idea that I should be feeling what my character is feeling. It sounds obvious, but at least to me, it wasn’t. I think I’ve always written detached, as if I was trying to look at someone else and imagine their emotions and how that would feel. I don’t know if I’ll be able to put myself in a character like that, but it’s worth a try.

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