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Yearn and Burn

Character emotions bring fiction to life.

You can have a well-designed, logical, plausible plot and characters that look good in the abstract with useful backgrounds, skills, capabilities, and personality traits, but without injecting emotions into their reactions, they will remain as lifeless as ventriloquist dummies latched inside carry cases.

Here’s an example:

Jane looked up at him. “Bob, I’m sorry, but we can’t see each other anymore. My husband is growing suspicious. I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

Bob sighed and nodded. “I guess you’re right. I don’t like it, but I understand. I’ll never forget you though. Believe that.”

They hugged, and Bob watched her walk away.

Flat, isn’t it?

Or are you thinking that maybe this example just needs some context. Maybe if we’d read all that had happened between the couple up to this point, we’d know what Bob was feeling.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

If a writer can flatten the breakup of a so-called passionate love affair to this extent, probably every encounter between this robo-couple will be equally ho-hum.

The only indication readers have that Bob experiences any feelings whatsoever comes through his sigh. And that sigh is too vague. It doesn’t convey whether he’s sad, relieved, miserable, exasperated, frustrated, or just clearing his throat.

Without emotional reaction to what’s happening in the story, Bob is boring. His lack of response and unfeeling acceptance trivializes what could be a strong, poignant moment.

What are the stakes for Bob? Is he devastated at losing Jane? Is she the love of his life? Is he afraid for her to return to her husband and desperate to persuade her to change her mind? Does he fear for her safety? Does he yearn to protect her? Does he burn to cherish her? Is he terrified of never seeing her again?

Or is Bob furious that she now wants to go back to her husband? Is he swept with jealousy and angry at the time and money he’s spent on her? Does he feel used and discarded?

Is Bob’s love about to morph into hatred?

From the passage above, we don’t know anything. And when the viewpoint character fails to feel, readers assume that the plot problem isn’t as important as it first appeared because the character didn’t react to it.

No character reaction = no importance.

Is that the effect you want? I hope not. Because why would you want to write about–much less design a scene around–something that’s unimportant or trivial?

Here are a few things that are awful about dealing with character emotions, at least from the writer’s perspective:

*They’re messy.

*They’re challenging to write.

*They’re exhausting.

*They’re hard to do well.

Many writers would rather dodge the whole business, but I’ve already explained the pitfalls of doing so. Your stories need characters, not automatons.

When I encounter a wannabe writer whining about the drawbacks of injecting emotions into characters, my response always boils down to a so what?

Never let yourself be dissuaded by how difficult some aspect of writing is. The degree of challenge you face is probably an indicator of how vital and necessary to your story that element will become.

Once writers grasp the necessity of including emotions, another area where they can stumble is by not writing them with sufficient intensity.

Try this:

Jane looked up at him. Tears swam in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore. My husband is growing suspicious. I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

Bob sighed, feeling miserable, and nodded. “I guess you’re right. I don’t like it, but I understand. I’ll never forget you though. Believe that.”

Well, we’ve got emotion in our example now–from Jane the non-viewpoint character who is about to cry–and from Bob whom we’re told feels miserable. Won’t that do?

It’s better than nothing, but it’s too tepid. If the stakes are high enough for the moment to be dramatized, then make it compelling. Push those emotions past your comfort zone.

Does this mean you must create hysterical, histrionic, over-the-top characters? Does this mean you have to write the way William Shatner acts?

Uh … why not? Shatner knows how to deliver a quiet, nuanced, restrained performance, but doing so hasn’t kept him working all these years.

Okay, your characters don’t have to be hysterical and histrionic, but they need to be E-X-A-G-G-E-R-A-T-E-D. And if exaggeration puts them over the top, so let it be written; so let it be done. You can always tone down the draft later in revision if it’s too much. But in rough draft, push the emotions until you flinch. Then push them some more.

Let’s try one more time:

Jane looked up at him. Tears swam in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore.”

“Wait! What? Darling, what are you saying?”

“I mean it. My husband is growing suspicious. You know I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

A sour, sick taste flooded Bob’s mouth. He curled his fists, wanting to drive down to the coffee shop and pound Eric Rankin to a pulp for what he’d put Jane through all these years. Still, for Jane’s sake, Bob tried to rein everything in. His stomach burned from the effort. It took all he had to speak normally, calmly. “I’d like for him to find out. I want him to know. Let me take you away. I can keep you safe from him. You know I can.”

Well, well. Look what’s happened to Bob. When I intensified his emotions, he came alive, and suddenly he has an ulcer, something of a violent temper, and he isn’t meekly agreeing with Jane’s decision. Instead, he’s arguing with her. He’s showing her (and readers) that he cares.

And maybe readers will start to care also.

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Sparkle: Animated Characters Part I

When writers are unsure of their idea or their craft, they tend to play safe in devising characters. Playing safe often splits into one of two directions: either the timid writer duplicates real life, using the demeanor, behavior, and appearance of an actual person, OR the timid writer derives characters from those already appearing in film, television, or books.

The first option creates a character that’s a dull snore of a bore.

The second option perpetuates a stereotype at worst or is simply derivative at best.

Timidity in character design won’t sparkle.

What we want when we create stories are characters that seem to come alive on the page. They’re vivid and intriguing. They possess verve. They seize the plot in dynamic ways and move it forward. They’re bold. They’re intrepid. They’re anything but passive. They are not flat.

Therefore, whenever you’re feeling tentative, counteract your conservative instincts and go bigger and bolder instead. Exaggerate your character far beyond your comfort zone. Ignore the niggling little fearful whisper in the back of your brain: “But if you do what Chester says, readers will laugh at you.”

And I say, “Readers may laugh but they won’t forget what you’ve written.”

Consider this example:

John lives in an affluent suburban housing addition planned by a local developer with the pleasant amenities of brick houses, three-car garages, sidewalks, one tree in every front yard, cedar stockade fences, and a playground with swimming pool limited to residents only. John is middle-aged, portly, and stiff in one knee. He’s an engineer and makes a comfortable living. His wife is a nurse. John drives a silver-gray SUV. His wife drives a tan sedan and spends her leisure time gardening in immaculate flowerbeds. They have a daughter, now finished with college and employed although still living at home. They have no pets. They do not entertain. John’s hobby is his saltwater fish-tank, and if there’s a power outage he runs a noisy little gas-powered generator to keep the aquarium going.

There’s not a thing wrong with John and his family. They are middle-class America. They are people we live next to, people we know, people we work beside or go to church with or meet at the grocery store. John is a pleasant, productive individual and a good neighbor.

As a character, however, in a fiction story, John is stinko. He’s got nothing interesting going on that will drive a plot. His only trouble is a co-worker who annoys him and his irritation with the power company that allows spikes and outages to jeopardize his expensive pet fish.

This is real life. It is not–repeat not–the stuff of fiction.

So when you squinch down, or roll yourself into a ball to protect your underbelly–hedgehog style–and you draw only from real life, you’re creating nothing. You’re duplicating an individual that’s flat and one-dimensional in story terms. Even worse, this so-called character won’t fit what your story needs because in your mind, the reality you’re recreating will fight whatever your story actually requires.

Let’s try again:

Johannes is single. He lives in a flashy apartment in a big-city high-rise. He drives a steel-colored BMW and he wears custom-tailored suits that are cut well enough to hide the bulge of his Sig-Sauer handgun. He’s frequently away on business because he’s a super-spy and his work takes him all over the world. He employs a cleaning service to maintain his apartment. His aquarium is built into the wall, and it contains only piranha.

Well, Johannes is colorful, much more so than John. Phony sparkle has been glued all over him, and he’s sending off reflections … to a point.

Trouble is, Johannes might as well be called James Bond. Other than the fish-tank, he is a duplicate, a blurred copy made from every stereotypical secret agent invented in 20th century fiction. Such a character is serviceable, if the plot moves fast enough and readers are trapped on a plane without any other reading material. Generally, however, there’s very little about Johannes to intrigue us. He’s as flat–despite the surface flashiness–as John.

So what do we do? How do we design a character that avoids these errors of caution?

A character that lives and sparkles is one that’s exaggerated, intriguing, torn within, and hiding something.

I’ll continue with this in Part II.

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