Writers in the Storm

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May 27, 2020

3 Exercises To Dive Deeper Into Character Emotions

By Lisa Hall-Wilson

So, you’ve got a first (or second or third) draft, but you’re still trying to get at the heart of what motivates your character. You’re still trying to unearth the variety of emotions, the intensity, the complexities of the emotions your character experiences at different points in the story.

But you’re stuck.

Those generic characterization quizzes and questionnaires only seem to hit surface level stuff for me. It’s too easy to skim those answers just to get it done.

I have a character like that right now. I KNOW this character. I’ve been working on this story for far longer than I care to admit, but she’s a tough nut. She doesn’t want to talk about it. She clams up. It’s beyond frustrating!

Do you know what I’m talking about?

Whether you’re just getting to know this character, or it’s a character you’ve known for a while and need to make fresh again, this post offers some ideas to kickstart those creative juices.

The point of these exercises isn’t necessarily to use any of the writing (although, if you do that’s a happy side-benefit). The point is to open up your creativity and to let the character take you in a direction you hadn’t thought of, to point out a thread you hadn’t noticed, to surprise yourself with where this story and this character could go.

Swing For The Fences

I’ve watched and re-watched multiple times this interview Johnny Depp did with Graham Norton. Graham asks where do these giant characters (Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, Mad Hatter, etc) come from and Depp gives this vague they’re born out of ideas answer. He just shows up and starts swinging and hopes it’ll be alright.

Note: It's the first 60-90 seconds of the linked interview that I'm talking about.

Probably there’s more to Depp's process, but the idea of "no-holds-barred, nothing is too big or too weird or too fantastic" is one writers can use. Just see where this idea, this character, this problem, takes you. How would this character (not you) react?

I’ve seen so many writers hold back on the emotions in their fiction.

Can you overwrite and have your drama turn into melodrama? Of course. But, many writers – out of fear of that outcome – pull up far too short of where they need to be. Go big or go home, baby! 😀

Just the practice of really letting loose with the emotion frees up your creativeness in a way that has always surprised me. The first draft is for you, it’s not for anyone else. No one can read anything until you give it to them. Swing for the fences!

Get In Touch With Your Own Emotions

Those who are more analytical in their thinking, I’ve found, seem to struggle with capturing emotions in their fiction. The temptation to label emotions, to tell, to summarize is very strong because that’s their natural tendency in real life.

For those who use intellectualization of emotion as a coping mechanism (like me), there’s a long and dedicated practice of ignoring how emotions feel and analyzing why I should or shouldn’t feel something.

You need to put that aside when writing.

This is sometimes helpful in real life, and it’s fine if that’s how your character handles things too initially – but the reader still wants to know how it feels, they want to be in the scene with the character. You’ll need to do a lot of research into how different emotions feel, or become more self-aware of your own emotions.

Some exercises to dive deeper

Write A Letter To/From Your Character

I’ve not tried this, but many writers like to write a letter either to or from their character. It may take a bit of back and forth to delve deep enough into the emotions going on, it requires some honesty and a willingness to let the character surprise you. To share a secret that seems “out there” or unreasonable. Don’t settle for the first idea that comes to mind.

Write A Journal

I’m currently experimenting with writing a journal for one character whose thoughts and emotions continue to elude me. Maybe because this character’s emotions continue to elude her?

I’m writing a journal for her as she goes through the story. The behind-the-scenes stuff you don’t tell your siblings or mom and dad. It’s a very personal no-one-else-will-see-this journal.

It’s fun digging deeper into what she wants, what she thinks she wants, what she doesn’t want others to know. What is she afraid of – and why? What she should have done? What she wished someone had said to her? What she wishes for but doesn’t think she deserves. These are all good places to start.

Have Shocking Coffee With Your Main Character

James Scott Bell shared an exercise he uses where he has writers sit down to have a conversation over coffee with their main character. He writes on The Killzone Blog: “I do an exercise called ‘Shocking Coffee.’ You, the author, imagine you are seated with your main character over a cup of coffee. She tells you she doesn’t think you’ve quite captured her. That surprises you a bit. I mean, after all, you created her.

“So you ask, ‘In what way?’ And your character tells you something that shocks you.”

Manage Your Expectations

These exercises probably won’t be a one-and-done thing. This is a process. You have to keep digging to find the gold, it likely won’t be sitting there partly exposed to the sun.

Each journal entry, each sip of coffee – it’s the back and forth that gets the creative juices flowing. You’re looking for new connections, new directions, to see new threads or possibilities that you missed before.

What about you? What’s your process for getting unstuck, or for diving deeper into a character’s emotions?

* * * * * *

About Lisa

Lisa Hall-Wilson is a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels. Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers,  at www.lisahallwilson.com.

Top Image by DanaTentis from Pixabay / Other images purchased from DepositPhotos.

18 comments on “3 Exercises To Dive Deeper Into Character Emotions”

  1. This is gold! Going to put your wisdom to work today...especially the what-she-wished-someone-had-said-to-her and the what-she-wishes-for-but-doesn't-think-she-deserves tips. Thanks, Lisa.

    1. Awesome! I have just begun to start with those questions because they always turn up gold for me.

  2. Ok. This! I have s-o-o-o many sweet little blank journals collecting dust. I'm gifting one to Willow, my witch with broken magic and broken dreams. I always come away with, as Chris put it, gold every time I read your writing tips, Lisa. This blog is one of them.

    1. Love it!! So glad you found this helpful! (psst - there's lots of tips on my blog too). 😀

  3. Thanks for sharing the techniques for delving deeper into our characters. I've often liked doing character journal entries, but now I've got two other tricks to use, thanks to this post. 🙂

    1. Oooh - I have some stubborn characters who have resisted all my efforts. This stuff is for when I need to pull out the BIG guns to get into the heart of things. 😀 Dive deep!

  4. Brilliant post! I love the idea of coffee, or maybe tea time, with characters. The interview with Johnny Depp was informative and so much fun.

    1. I really really love that interview with Depp. You can google the comment he made about getting the idea in the sauna. It's crazy where and how creative ideas hit us. I've made a conscious effort to be more open to it happening - everywhere!

  5. Thanks, Lisa! Excellent essay. I really like "Go big or go home," and it's something I need to remember. Also, when I was starting my series, I did write a letter from my lead character to me, and it was a great exercise. To my surprise, it wasn't hard at all. I think he wanted to talk to me, to help me tell his story. I highly recommend it.

    1. Oh good. When they're happy to talk makes everything so much easier.

  6. I have a stubborn secondary character I need to put through the mill. She has to do something the reader might question - so she had better have a very good reason for doing it. With the proper motivation, anything is possible.

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