Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 8, 2012

Mining For Character Emotions

By Sharla Rae

Let’s face it, mining for the best expression of emotions whether it’s body language, gut reactions, internalization or dialogue can be like panning for gold. A lot of useless grit is sloshed around before you hit pay dirt.

Picture this: You’re sitting at your computer; the sun is shining through the window and you’re feeling happy vibes.

Then scrolling to page 49 of your book, you realize you left a very angry Zelda stranded knee-deep in alligators at the office. Worse, because you, the writer are Zelda’s alter ego, you have to ditch your good day and feel what she feels . . . on paper at least.

At one of our OCC RWA chapter meetings, an actress spoke about conveying character types to an audience. Although female, her body slipped into the physical persona of a cocky young male. It was amazing to watch. She lead with her hips, took center stage, and mimed puffing on a cigarette. Her grin reeked male smugness. Instead of a young and attractive female, I saw a cock-sure punk,

What an actress does on stage
is exactly what I want to do with the written word.

So where can a writer dig up these emotions? Once we know the emotion, to what degree should it be dramatized?

I did some research on methods used by actors and discovered their tools crossover to writers.

At Actor’s Exchange where actors, directors etc. exchange industry info, it was suggested that actors must first be aware of “all” facets of emotions.  In other words, emotions don’t happen in a vacuum.

4 Basic Things A Writer Or Actor Must Know Before Conveying Emotion

  1. What is the inciting incident that triggers emotion.
  2. Identify the emotion.
  3. What is the body’s physical/gut reaction to the emotion. [Not body language but how the emotion makes your body feel]
  4. What did the face or body do? (body & facial language)

Now that we know what we need to convey emotion, how do we do it?

One method used by actors is called, The Methods or emotional memory technique of acting. This amounts to recalling personal emotions and what they felt like and then portraying that to the audience.

A second method for an actor is to portray character emotions by Accessing Physical Reactions To Emotions. Actors can bring themselves to the edge of tears by triggering a yawn which brings tears. This won’t work on paper but writers can access and write physical reaction.

BUT! There are drawbacks.

Both methods use personal, recalled feelings and reactions. They may not be in keeping with the personality of the character. (See my blog: Keep Characters True To Themselves)

Actor’s Exchange suggests that the best method to show emotion is to know the play/story, and the character.Duh! Sound familiar?

So here’s my version of how it works: 

1] Be the character: Jump into his skin. The character is a combination of your experienced emotions, who the “character” is, his motivations and his situation.

            One article I found, Acting Emotions by Elly A. Konijn called this a “double consciousness,” the remembered emotion is the writers/actor’s but they are aware of the character’s circumstance and personality. 

2] Allow the story contents to “trigger” the emotions you need. 

We all know and understand anger but there are varying degrees and ways of expressing it. The story’s content and the triggering event determine how a particular personality expresses an emotion.

Concerning anger you might ask questions like these:

  • Is the character merely irritated or are they in a full-blown, red-in-the-face rage?
  • Is this personality a show-all, tell-all, or are they withdrawn?
  • Does the emotion make them want to throw up or are they so tough, nothing much affects them?
  • Does the triggering event require a mind-blowing reaction or a minor blink of the eye?  

Writers have to dig deep, find the gold and turn it into an emotional jewel.  

For me, body language, dialogue and introspection are the easiest expressions of emotion. It’s the gut reactions that throw me. For this reason I’m including a list of possibilities. And yes, some examples cross over into the other emotional forms. 

This list just scratches the surface so I hope you’ll comment and add some of your own ideas. Be sure to see the links at the bottom of the blog.  

Emotion As A Physical/Gut Reaction


Let’s talk. How do you mine for character emotions?


0 comments on “Mining For Character Emotions”

  1. I'm always looking for the best way to convey character emotions, living in the character's skin isn't comfortable, but it's the most effective method for me. Thank you for all the linkage, busy bookmarking 🙂

    1. Sorry Sharla and Jenny. I can't seem to add a comment. Is wordpress angry with me ... yes I can see the veins on their head swelling with anger, their jaw tightens and their silent disregard for my need to comment is shown in the stone, cold blankess of their faces. Ah ha, but I beat them by coming here. Just the mention of his name filled her with need, like I needed to comment and couldn't by pass WP solid resolve. Of course, I could get a grip of my insides and take a short, measured breath and say ... LOVE THIS POST!!

  2. Wonderful post with some amazing resources and tips! Lately, I've been using music as a way to get into a character's skin. Making specific playlists of songs (instrumental and with lyrics) that remind me of a particular character, a certain relationship, or even a scene is really helpful to put me in the right "mood," especially with characters that are particularly aggressive or angry (not my usual state of mind, lol). I'll definitely be applying these suggestions to my WIPs!

  3. Sharla, I just keep rewriting until it seems to work. I love all of your suggestions here and the links you've offered. Lots of great ideas. Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂

  4. I use my own emotions, be they anger or hatred or happiness, to convey how the character would feel, although the circumstances may be totally different. I love your list of gut reactions. Thank yo for that.

    1. Glad you like the list. I always think of more and better stuff after I do a list. Makes me think of the old-time cartoons where they pictured blood veins bursting in a head and other unacceptable stuff. Ha!

  5. Excellent post. Deep POV depends on being about to portray those emotions. But I'd never likened it to actors though they do mime everything.
    I'll have to read this several times to make sure I haven't missed anything.
    Teresa R.

  6. Teresa, every watch silent movies? The actors had to exagerate emotions because we couldn't here what they were saying. It's amazing how they did tell a story without saying a word!

  7. Great postr, Sharla. Oddly, despite my background in theatre, I find I usually don't think this way when writing. Thanks for the reminders and the great links.

  8. Great post, Shar. And thank you for the links. I use another book on acting for writing purposes: The Power of The Actor by Ivana Chubbuck. For every scene, your pov character needs to get something from another character. For instance, you don't say, I want love, but I want to get you to love me. Get it?

  9. Simply stunning post - thank you so much. I LOVE the concept of "double consciousness". It's exactly how I feel about writing my character's emotions, but I never had the words for it. The naming of things is so powerful, and that name is so perfect.
    Thanks also for your wonderful list of visceral emotions/responses - so handy as we try to draw our readers in and make them really feel what our characters are feeling.
    Well done. This is a post every writer should read. Twice. And then print to have on hand.

  10. [...] In almost every plot, characters are gaining knowledge about something and seeking the truth about something. James Killick gives us 4 ways your protagonist can learn the truth, while Janice Hardy tells us how to track character knowledge so we can find it easily when we need it. Characters need emotion as well as knowledge, if we are to care about them, so Sharla Rae shares tips to mine for character emotion. [...]

  11. I've copied and pasted this blog to my personal 'writing tips' file. I'm sure it'll be really useful. Thanks Sharla. Personally I use a visual method, where I see in my mind's eye the scene and the characters and then I see what happens and I try to record it as faithfully as I possibly can.

  12. Yvette, you sound like me. When I'm truly stuck on a scene. I actually sit and type with my eyes closed. Sounds silly but hey, whatever works, right? Not paying attention to the computer screen and instead seeing the scene in my head and typing is a great exercise.

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