Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 24, 2021

2 Ways to Help Readers Connect Emotionally With Your Characters

by Lisa Hall Wilson

When you begin to learn about Deep Point of View, one of the over-simplified “rules” that’s taught is to remove emotion words (hate, anxious, happy, sad, worried, etc.), but that leaves you with a BIGGER problem. How do you show the character's emotions once you’ve removed the emotion words?

Emotions become the WHY for everything your character thinks, says, and does, so if you’re getting feedback that readers can’t connect with your character, they don’t understand why your character thinks/says/does certain things – you might have either a WHY problem, or a GAP.

A Shift in Mindset

The goal of deep POV is to remove the writer/narrator voice and create an immersive emotional journey for the reader, where they are with the character in every scene and privy to every relevant thought and feeling. Every word on the page comes from within your character, you’re not telling a story about a character (as you are in limited third person).

The WHY Must Be Specific

Why your character is making the decisions they make or thinking the way they do – the reader wants to be along for that journey. If you don’t know why your character is making certain choices or what they think about everything, then the reader has no chance whatsoever to figure it out without you telling them.

The WHY must be specific to the situation and the stakes made clear to readers. Your character is angry, keep asking them why they’re mad. What else are they feeling? How does being angry help in this situation? Are they free to express their anger in this situation? Why or why not. What’s at stake?

That why-filter shows what’s important to your character -- priorities, what they’re risking or exposing, and gives motivation for decisions. That why-filter contains all their past experiences and current emotions, even the ones they’re afraid to show to anyone.

Mind The Gap

When you hear from beta readers or critique partner to go deeper, one of the problems they may be pointing to (without being able to articulate the problem) is the gap. When the why is missing, the reader pauses at the gap undermining the immersive effect we’re going for.

The gap happens when we summarize, skip, skim, or otherwise leap ahead and leave the reader behind. Either the actual decision isn’t revealed to the reader and/or why the character made that decision is missing.

With GAP:

Jason watched the woman walk towards the bar, her heels clacking on the hard linoleum. Not interested, he thought.

Can you see the gap? There’s distance and telling in this bit with the word “watched” and “he thought” but there’s something missing. Why isn’t he interested? The conclusion is being shared without showing the evidence of how that conclusion was reached – we’re storytelling instead of living out the story as the character. What does Jason see that causes him to dismiss the woman? You might be tempted to TELL here to fill in the gap. Resist!! Use emotions to show why.

Without GAP:

Feminine heels clacked on the hard linoleum. Jason swiveled in his seat. The lanky blond-from-a-box strode towards him with a wink, her hot pink heels competing against her cleavage for his gaze. Trouble, that’s what that was. Pure and simple. He gave her his back and tipped his beer to his lips.

In the first version, he sees her and makes a snap decision, but I don’t know what information he’s used to make that decision – is it based on her appearance, age, clothing, gender?? The reader has no idea. In the rewrite, the reader sees the woman through Jason’s perspective. She’s lanky (not willowy, slender, lean, curvy – she’s lanky – that’s a description that has a negative connotation), and he sees her hair as blond-from-a-box – another negative description. This is all emotional subtext, right. We haven’t TOLD the reader anything.

Then we have the thought. “Trouble, that’s what that was.” Do we need him to describe her eye color, clothing, designer label? Nope. We get a sense of what’s important to him RIGHT NOW based on the details he focuses on and skips over. He doesn’t see anything he finds more attractive than his beer.

Do you see how the missing why creates a gap for readers? Readers can’t see what he sees, the way he sees it – they’re not in the room with him. The gap undermines the immersive effect deep POV aims to create.

Let’s Look At Another Example.

With GAP:

Allison stared at the painting, wondering at the imagination required to create such a stunning portrait. She would never be able to paint like that, she thought.

We know the thinking and emotions have to go (wondering, thought), but can you see the gap? Do you know WHY she thinks she could never make something like that? What exactly is she wondering at? There’s a why here, but there’s no specificity to it, there’s no details that might give greater insight into the character for readers (into who she is, what she wants, what’s important to her, etc.). The why is where readers connect emotionally.

Without GAP:

Allison’s ankles ached from standing still too long, but she couldn’t look away from the painting. The woman in the portrait studied her, like she was worth noticing. Tears welled up in her eyes. She rocked on her heels and looked away, shoulders slumped. She’d never be able to paint such an expression.

To try and show that Allison has been studying the painting for a while, I brought in a sensory detail – her ankles ache. The woman in the portrait makes her feel seen (which implies that ordinarily she feels overlooked, plain, unworthy) and it draws out an emotional response. Now we have a specific reason for Allison’s conclusion that she could never paint an expression (see the specificity?) like that.

Are the gaps clear to you from the examples? Have you found any in your own work? We hope you'll share them with us in the comments!

The next 5 week masterclass on deep POV starts in May 2021. Find more details soon in the Going Deeper With Emotions In Fiction Facebook group.

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About Lisa

Lisa Hall-Wilson

Lisa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog Beyond Basics For Writers explores all facets of the popular writing style deep point of view and offers practical tips for writers. 

She runs the free Facebook group Going Deeper With Emotions where she shares tips and videos on writing in deep point of view. 

26 comments on “2 Ways to Help Readers Connect Emotionally With Your Characters”

  1. Excellent examples. Thanks so much for diving into this. Yes, I've had this critique of "go deeper," and grumbled to myself, "I thought I did better in this draft. What am I missing?" You've given me great material to hone in on when I do the next edit.

  2. Very Helpful. Your advice was done with show don't tell, so that we could understand.

  3. Your examples always help me, and these are in front of me for a reason. i've been 'going deeper' but I know I can go even deeper now. Thank you!

  4. I always love these posts. Nothing like a little reminder, a nudge, as I go in for a round of edits. There's always room to add informative details and remove distance.

  5. Even though I've taken your class, I still enjoyed these reminders. Thanks, Lisa.

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