Writers in the Storm

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December 1, 2021

How To “Go Deeper” Into A Character’s Emotions

By Lisa Wilson-Hall

Writing character emotions is tricky, but an effective way to bring your writing to life. Emotions serve three specific purposes: to inform us, to protect us, to warn us. All of this is true in real life as in fiction.

Always tell the truth, as Stephen King has said, and we want our written characters to resonate the way they would in real life. These three purposes provide a framework if you will, that will help you drill down into the specific and particular WHY behind what your character thinks and does.

Emotions are not linear, they are not always logical or trustworthy, and are rarely convenient. Getting it right on paper takes careful planning. Within this framework, we must become curious about how our characters feel, and why they feel that way.

This framework also helps to keep showing-and-not-telling at the forefront. In deep POV, there’s no narrator or writer voice to explain or summarize how a character feels, or why they are thinking or doing any one thing. It’s even more important to clearly write emotion if you are using this point of view. So, let’s dive a bit deeper into brainstorming emotional complexity and nuance.

The Kids At The Table (Emotional Context)

Imagine there’s a conference table in your character’s head, and seated at the table are the younger selves of that character – one’s five, one’s ten, one’s eleven and a half, one’s eighteen, etc. They have all survived/lived through/experienced something that caused high emotions.

Each of those kids has a concern. And when that concern is raised will propose the solution that saw them through. Because remember, the purpose of emotions is to inform, to protect, to warn. (Note: these emotions do not have to be a traumatic memory.)

Consider the character you are writing when deciding who is at the table. An emotionally mature individual will have their ‘true self’ seated at the head. They will consult all the younger selves in order to:

  • hear their concerns
  • listen to their proposed solutions
  • then decide on an informed plan of action
  • they are not ruled by their emotion

 The character at the head of the table MUST be occupied by someone in a high-emotion moment, one that requires input from all their past selves to inform, to protect, and inform them about their next plot move.

An Example of Using Emotional Context:

Sally is at work and gets cornered by a handsy boss. The girls at the table are going to be shooting up their hands, speaking over one another, climbing on top of the table – each of them has a slightly different but very specific concern here.

  • One girl informs Sally that she has a mortgage and kids at home who need to eat and can’t afford to lose this job.
  • Another girl is screaming to inform Sally this is wrong and unfair and stupid… (she’s pretty angry so she’s very loud).
  • Yet another girl is banging her fist on the table warning Sally about the last time she rejected a man’s advances.
  • There’s yet another girl trying to protect Sally by pointing out this is just like when her ex-husband cornered her when he was drunk.
  • There may even be the ghost of a man at the table – her ex-husband, repeating that she deserves this because she’s a tease and a flirt.

Do you see how these voices have specific conflicting concerns? This is a rich emotional context that draws readers in. The vast majority of our decisions are made using emotional context. Each girl at the table with a concern will also propose a solution.

Who is at the head of the table can change the context dramatically. Consider a character that is emotionally immature.

Imagine the problems that could happen when the five-year-old gets the head chair. It’s a much bigger problem when that five-year-old spends A LOT of time at the head of the table (emotionally immature). It could turn your story in a completely different direction. These are ways to pepper emotional context into your story and enhance it.

Using Internal Conflict for Emotional Context

Sometimes your tablemates aren’t seeing eye-to-eye.  This can be a lot of fun in a story. Writers can pit the snarky teen self against the risk-averse mother self and watch the internal sparks fly!

Internal conflict isn’t when more than one kid at the table is upset, it’s when those kids can’t agree on what to do or which concern should sit at the head of the table.

Next Steps – Put This Into Action:

Choose an emotional high-point in a chapter, and brainstorm which kids are sitting around the emotional table in your character’s head. What are their SPECIFIC concerns and solutions?

Set them up to Cut them down (Squashed Emotions)

Your character will experience many emotions in your story.  But sometimes, they will not feel like they are being heard. They may not get what they want.  They may even be completely denied.

Example of Squashed Emotions:

Now, a squashed emotion behaves very much like that child who persistently tries to get mom or dad’s attention when mom or dad are busy or distracted. They tug and pull at mom’s shirt hem. Yes honey, just a minute.

They tug on the shirt hem some more without a reaction from mom. But this is important. So the child escalates their attempts to be heard. “Mom. Mom. Mom.” They may act out, they might hit or punch or throw things – all in an attempt to be heard. Our emotions function much like that.

And even though this child character may finally get your attention, they still may not get what they want. How many times do we finally acknowledge the child, only to have them tell them it's raining outside? Or the cookies they want are for school? The child character will need to accept this change, even if they are heard.

Emotions aren’t always trustworthy.

The character’s concern is super important to them, and it will keep the reader wondering how it will become resolved.  The internal conflict will continue to nag and tug and pull until acknowledged. The longer that concern gets squashed, the louder and more insistent that concern becomes.

So, our example character, Sally who is confronted by a handsy boss, lets the intimidated 14-year-old sit at the head of the table. It’s a child with no clear voice, no allies, no autonomy, no power. Her solution is to play along until Sally can escape. The 14-year-old thinks if they simply avoid the boss indefinitely, it will turn out fine.

This idea placates some of Sally’s concerns, but it makes the 18yo feminist fire up and gets her fists swinging. This is wrong, the 18-year-old thinks. This is BS. The 18-year-old wants to complain to HR.

That handsy boss concern isn’t going to sit down quietly at the table. Each time this conflict rises up, that concern is going to get LOUDER and LOUDER. But what’s the cost of ignoring or squashing that voice? Because it’s going to be exhausting and frustrating – because that 18-year-old isn’t wrong, according to the others at the table, isn’t she?

Next Steps – Put This Into Action:

Now, you’ve brainstormed which kids are sittCing at the table in your scene. Whose concern gets priority? Whose concerns are squashed? Which characters voice comes through and WHY? Be specific and particular.

Questions to Shape Your Internal Conflicts:

  • What does your character think each concern says about them, about what they really want? What would a stronger/smarter/more powerful person do?
  • What do they want to do but won’t allow themselves to act on?
  • How can you play with juxtaposing what they think/feel vs the actions they take or what they allow others to see or perceive about them/

Surprise The Reader – One Way to Craft Internal Conflict

In his book “The Emotional Craft Of Fiction,” Donald Maass recommends you brainstorm a list of three to five possible emotions in a scene, and choose one that will surprise the reader. The key is specificity and particularity.

 I’ve found there’s more tension in the response from my list that surprises ME – the writer the most. A response where I didn’t know they felt that way. Or a response that would cause a lot more trouble for my main character.

Sally can placate the handsy boss in the moment and work to avoid him later, but why this feels like the best course of action must be specific. Perhaps it’s because she’ll wait till he’s out of the office and then plans to slip evidence of his many indiscretions to his wife under his front door. Now that would be an interesting resolution to the conflict for all of Sally’s selves.

Next Steps – Put This Into Action:

How would you use these questions to form other possible outcomes?

  • What does your character think each reaction says about them, about what they really want? What would a stronger/smarter/more powerful person do?
  • What do they want to do but won’t allow themselves to act on?
  • What would they tell the younger self who feels squashed?

Do you find this idea of brainstorming with the kids at the table helpful for diving deeper into the emotions of a scene? What tips for internal conflict or resources that you’ve used could you share with our readers today?

* * * * * *

About Lisa

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. 

Photo credit: Lisa Hall-Wilson

21 comments on “How To “Go Deeper” Into A Character’s Emotions”

  1. I love it when I get to leave the first comment! This is a really easy example to extrapolate. Unheard and invalidated emotions ARE like whiny kids.

    The voice I hear in my head --> "Mom. Mom. Mom! Mom-Mom-Mom!!"

    I totally get this.

    1. Right! Anyone who’s stood in a grocery store line for … 5 minutes, has heard that whiny kid. But, the kid (emotion) usually has a point. Their concern is valid, the problem is when the kid uses kid-logic to answer the concern.

  2. This discussion is helpful, and I imagine experienced writers will run with it.

    I'm a novice and would love to see this working in an example or two.

    1. It’s all about emotional context. Our brains are constantly searching for context, continuity, and closure. Often our emotions are striving to provide this.
      Those small voices in our character’s head that show internal conflict.

      Think about Bilbo Baggins who says he’s perfectly happy being a respectable Hobbit, living in his hole, etc. But there was a kid at the table longing for adventure. But that kid (emotion) who wants safety and predictability never shuts up does it?

  3. I love the kids at the table, especially the whiny one who gets more insistent. Time to check my manuscript to see if my "whiny kid" does just that. Thank you!

  4. I love that you lay it out first with "Emotions serve three specific purposes: to inform us, to protect us, to warn us." Then you show us how those emotions fire all at the same time and make a room full of conflict inside our character's head. There's something for every writer, new or experienced, in this piece. Love it.

    1. It’s all part of our brains needing context, continuity and closure. The brain is constantly searching its archives looking for how to deal with present thing based on how the past thing was handled. How is this like that past thing?

  5. Hi Lisa,
    Thanks for the in depth post on adding various perspectives of former selves to our writing. I can see how it adds tension and depth! Great post!

  6. Such an interesting way of analyzing inner conflict. Love it! Both my main characters bring their younger selves to the table at times, but I'll go through and do a deep dive on those scenes.

  7. This is one of the first posts I've ever read from any author on Deep POV that actually makes sense to me. I have struggled with this as a writer for YEARS. I have bought books on crafting emotions that didn't make as much sense as this post. Thanks so much for this insight. I plan to share this post with my writers' guild.

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