3 Tips for Showing Character Emotion

Ah, character emotion. It’s one of the hardest things to write right. It’s also one of the most important. You can have a deep, complex character, a compelling, well-crafted plot, and the setting descriptions nailed down to the tiniest details. But if you can’t write character emotion in a compelling way, your book will be only half as rich as it could be.

second-edition21As you may already know, if you’ve been hanging around the writing world for a while, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi of Writers Helping Writers have just released a new book! So, to celebrate The Emotion Thesaurus: Second EditionI’ve compiled several tips I’ve discovered while on my own writing journey.

1. Don’t Resort to the Face

Many authors, myself included, tend to go straight to the face for signs of emotion. In my first drafts, all my characters smile, frown, and glare; their eyes shoot daggers and glisten with tears and shift away slyly. It’s true that the face does show emotion, but other parts of the body are equally good–or even better at it. When was in my Sherlock phase (if we’re being honest, I never grew out of it), I learned to watch people’s feet to deduce their emotions. Crazy, right?

unhappy-389944_640That’s not to say you can’t use facial expressions. When done right, these can be powerful descriptions. Take the following passage for example. I’ve read this book a total of one time, and that was two or three years ago, and yet I still remember how much this description stuck out to me:

[A] forehead with a singular capacity . . . of lifting and knitting itself into an expression that was not quite one of perplexity, or wonder, or alarm, or merely of bight fixed attention, though it included all four the expressions[.]

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


Just to be clear, I wouldn’t suggest actually writing descriptions like that (unless you’re actually Charles Dickens); the point is, it is possible to write good emotion through the face.

2. What is your character thinking?

Any good psychologist will tell you that there is a thought behind every emotion. It’s not always a conscious thought–in fact, unconscious thoughts and underlying beliefs are often more powerful. The Emotion Thesaurus (including the Second Edition) has a section all about thoughts and mental responses.

This isn’t something you do every single time your character feels an emotion. It also doesn’t have to be internal monologue (though it certainly can be). In other words, you don’t want a character who’s all emotion and no conscious thought, nor do you want a character who’s all thoughts and no feelings. That would just seem… odd.

3. Every Character is Different

Just because Ron Weasley has the emotional range of a teaspoon… yeah you get the picture. Every character will probably have a different emotional range. On top of that, some people tend to be very private about their emotions, while others spill them openly. And guys and girls experience emotions differently. (I hadn’t quite nailed this down when I wrote my first novel. You do not wanna read it.)

And, of course, different characters will express the same emotion differently. Just as a quick example, I have one character who tends to snap at people when he gets angry, but when presented with the same situation, another of my characters will have a full-blown temper tantrum.

The best advice I can give you is to get to know your characters. Showing emotion is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath every emotion and reaction is a history, a backstory, a wound, a set of beliefs. Of course, there’s no way I can get into all of that today! (Hint: Angela and Becca have a bunch of other thesauruses that talk about all that!)

Giveaway!

One last thing here: there’s an epic giveaway going on right now!

To celebrate the new book and its dedicated readers, Angela and Becca have an unbelievable giveaway on right now: one person will win a free writing retreat, conference, workshop, or professional membership to a writing organization, winner’s choice (up to $500 US, with some other conditions which are listed on the WHW site).

What conference would you attend if the fee was already paid for…or would you choose a retreat? Something else? Decisions, decisions! This giveaway ends on February 26th, so hurry over and enter!

Are you excited about the new Emotion Thesaurus?

Do you have any tips on showing character emotion?

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The Pitiable Antagonist

Gollum. The Phantom of the Opera. Draco Malfoy. Severus Snape.

What do all of these have in common? They’re all antagonists, of course.

And, probably, we have another emotion associated with them besides hate.

Sometimes, we love to hate the villain (Umbridge, anyone?). If they’re evil enough, we might love being terrified. Occasionally, we might even decide we love them, in a weird sort of way (Moriarty!!!). But it is rarer to pity the villain. Why?

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Well, first off, pitiable villains (or antagonists) aren’t right for every story. Certain stories may require certain sorts of villains, depending on the plot and the themes present. I’m going to skip giving you an explanation and assume you can decide for yourself what kind of villain you need. Let’s say you want to create a villain your readers will develop a certain empathy for…

1. Backstory. Please don’t make this a clichéd backstory; we don’t need another villain who is incapable of love because of some dark event from his past. (That is to say, it’s not wrong to write a backstory like that, I just think it would be neat if you were more creative.)

snape2Backstory is key, because that’s usually what makes us pity the villain in the first place. Think how much our attitude changed toward the Phantom once we learned what happened to him. And Snape. I actually hated Snape for the first 6 ¾ books. And even when Harry learned his whole backstory, I still didn’t like him… but there was an empathy present that I had never had for him before.

2. Empathy is different than pity. I know I sometimes use the words interchangeably, but honestly they’re different. Empathy is being able to understand another person, to feel their emotions even. Pity is feeling sorry for someone. A lot of times, the two go hand-in-hand.

But when it comes to villains, empathy is usually already present (or should be). We need to be able to empathize in at least some way with the villain, even if we don’t agree with him or approve of his moral choices. We don’t have to love him, we don’t even have to pity him. But give the villain something the readers will identify with; it can even be something as small as being addicted to bacon (because isn’t everyone addicted to bacon, deep down?).

Pity, when directed toward the villain, plays a completely different role than empathy. Pity unlocks something in our hearts that allows us to feel compassion for someone whom we thought was unlovable. Of course, everyone experiences emotions differently, but I think that’s what generally happens.

For example, Gollum. I wouldn’t necessarily call him a villain, but he’s definitely not a loyal sidekick either. He lies and deceives, and even goes so far as to try to get Frodo killed. Plus, he’s after the Ring, which is never good news no matter who you are. But Gollum is also a very tortured character, twisted and demented by his lust for the Ring. He was not so different from a Hobbit once, and the Sméagol side of him still longs for the way things used to be.

3. Make sure pity doesn’t take away the villain’s strengths. Unless that’s the whole point you’re doing it, of course. Every character has a mix of both strengths and weaknesses. It’s really easy to give the villain too much strength and not enough weakness, but pity can sometimes have a way of flipping that around.

For example (and this is a completely unofficial, off-the-record statement) my villain has… certain persons involved with his backstory that have not yet… been revealed. In fact, I haven’t even decided if I want to write it that way or not. But just plotting out my poor villain’s tragic past has made my pity meter start beeping like crazy (actually, I think it exploded once, it was so bad). Unfortunately, if I choose to actually write about said events, I’m going to have to find a way to not completely strip my villain of everything that makes him the depraved, fearsome, epic bad guy that he is.

That’s all the tips I have for you today, but I love villains (especially when they give you the feels), so I might just have to start writing more about them.

Do you have a favorite villain that you pity?

(Or a favorite villain in general?)

The Power of Empathy: How to Keep Readers in Thrall

Funky 6Hi everyone!! Today, I have a very special post… I am absolutely THRILLED to have Angela Ackerman on my blog! She’s here to talk about character empathy. So, without further ado, I’ll hand things over to her. 🙂

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Gluing readers to the page. This is a writer’s goal each step of the way, from gaining the attention of an agent, to compelling an editor to make an offer, and finally, to enthralling an audience. We strive to make people experience something powerful when they read our words. To genuinely FEEL. To care.

Sounds…um, not easy? I know! Building empathy requires skill, knowledge and practice. Writers must become deeply in tune with a reader’s emotions and learn how to use these feelings to bind them to the story.

 

Girl with booksMake Outsiders Become Insiders

When a reader opens a book, they have certain expectations. They know the book’s genre and the jacket copy offers a peek into what the storyline is about. However, at this point, they are still Outsiders. They have not yet invested in the protagonist or their journey. The author has a narrow window of time to draw readers in and convert them into close confidants. Insiders.

Encouraging empathy is the way to make this happen. When readers are brought into the hero’s or heroine’s point-of-view, they not only begin to understand the character’s world, they actually can share their experiences, something done by keying into real human experiences.

Each of us knows how it feels to make a mistake, to screw up in a way that disappoints others and ourselves. Likewise, we also know what it is like to face a difficult challenge and triumph, proving to ourselves and others that we are capable and worthy. These are two situations out of infinite possibilities that readers will read and recognize because they too have had these experience and felt the emotions that go with them. When a writer shows emotion-bound experiences like these through the character’s eyes the reader connects to them and the character. They remember their own past experiences and it created a sense of shared understanding—brotherhood. And this allows empathy to form.

Empathy is a powerful bond where a reader invests in and cares for the hero or heroine. The character is more than a name on a page; they take on bones and shape, and become someone worth caring for. This emotional investment means a reader will feel discomfort and anguish at the losses and excitement and satisfaction at the wins. Whenever readers find themselves caring about what is at stake, the author has succeeded at making them Insiders who root for the protagonist all the way to the finish line.

 

5 Ways To Encourage Reader Empathy

Humanize your character. Real people have strengths, flaws, and weaknesses. Characters must also have a blend of these. They should be imperfect and make mistakes, but also be likable. Give your hero at least one commendable trait that makes him worthy to cheer for.

Get inside their bones. Make your protagonist believable by giving him realistic desires, emotions, thoughts, and fears that an audience can relate to. These commonalities will resonate with the reader’s own beliefs and feelings, reinforcing that bond. Allow the character’s self-doubt to bleed through to some degree, showing the reader his vulnerable side.

Clearly define the needs, goals, and stakes. Scene to scene, readers must always know what the character is fighting for. Leave no doubt as to what he is trying to achieve, why, and the cost of failure.

Hobble characters through challenges that readers will sympathize with.  Readers bring their own life experience to the book, so use it. Story conflict and personal stakes will remind readers of their own past where they faced similar roadblocks. Pile on challenges, make the hero sometimes fail, but also show growth and successes on the journey.

Never betray the reader’s trust. Writers must know their characters inside and out, and make sure their actions, thoughts, and beliefs align with who they are. If a character acts in a way that does not fit his nature, the reader will feel betrayed. Dig deep. Get to know the character, including what past wounds haunt him. And always plot with intent. Manipulating a character’s choices or actions just to bring about a plot twist or complication will always ring false.

Remember, well-drawn characters are worth the work of developing because they are the ones readers can’t forget…not a week after reading the story, or a month, or a year.

 

What are some of the stand-out characters you love? What drew them to you and caused that empathy bond to form? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

Angela Ackerman

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as five others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

 

The Difference between Salvation and Redemption

I’ve been doing a lot of character development lately. It’s my new favorite aspect of writing. I’ve been reading a lot about the different Myers-Briggs types (and yes, each of my twelve main characters is a different type), delving into backstories, and figuring out their inner motivations.

My latest endeavor is to answer this question: What is it that drives them? What are they seeking, and hoping to find? These questions are closely connected to their inner motivations. Of course, all of them are driven by something different. No one is quite desiring the exact same thing, although they share the same external goal for the story. They all have different histories, and different character arcs. Every single one of them has a unique internal longing.

That being said, of course some of them will be similar. For example, and this is the main point of this post, two of my characters are seeking almost the same thing. I’ll call them Character A and Character B, for the sake of character-author confidentiality. For some odd reason, most of my characters have a habit of having intricate, secretive backgrounds which somehow always end up playing vital roles in future stories that haven’t been written yet. So, for the sake of a spoiler-free post, I will tell you their stories but not who they are. Get to the point, you say. What do these two characters want?

One of them is seeking salvation, while the other is seeking redemption. I had to stop and think about this after I wrote it. Don’t the two words mean the same thing? More often than not, they are used synonymously, especially when referring to the Christian faith. But no… they are not really synonyms. The root of the word “salvation” is “save,” and the root of “redemption” is “redeem.” Redeeming someone is very different from saving someone. Saving someone implies protecting them. From danger, perhaps. From death, even. Saving implies rescuing. But nothing more.

Redeeming someone, on the other hand, is more than just rescuing someone. Redemption involves a price. If you redeem something, you are buying it back. If you redeem something, it is yours. But it always comes at a price.

It’s easy to see why the two words are used synonymously when referring to Christ. Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, gave us both salvation and redemption. He saved us from death – by taking sin upon himself – and serving the punishment for that sin: death. And because he paid that price for us, he redeemed us from sin. He bought us back to be his own. And now, if we believe in him, we not only are saved from death, but we belong to him. We are his children.

In the cases of Character A and Character B, one of them is seeking redemption, but the other is seeking salvation. This too is easy to see. Character A grew up in a dysfunctional family. As a child and teen he was abused – both physically and emotionally – by his parents. He was bullied by other children. He was wronged in a lot of ways, and this traumatic past has shaped the rest of his life. He doesn’t trust anyone but himself, not even God. In fact, he wonders if God exists at all. He wants salvation.

Character B, on the other hand, is haunted by a past she no longer wants any part of. She’s made mistakes; she’s been lured in by sin’s enticing temptations. Her sin hurt the people in the world she loved most, not to mention herself. She’s mad at God and feels she doesn’t belong anywhere, not even in the shelter of God’s love. She wants redemption.

So there you have the difference between redemption and salvation. Salvation is a rescue; redemption is a purchase. Character development is definitely one of the harder things about writing, but it’s also one of the most fun and rewarding aspects too.

My favorite resources for developing a character’s backstory or motivations are the Emotional Wound Thesaurus and the Character Motivation Thesaurus (both are from Writers Helping Writers. I’m very excited because The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is going to be released sometime this October!!) Even if you don’t need them as writing resources, check them out anyway. They’re awesome.

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Plot happens when many characters’ journeys cross paths.

A character’s journey, for me, quickly becoming more important than the plot of the story. It makes sense… the characters are the ones interacting with the plot. A lot of the time, the characters are the ones creating the plot in the first place. What would Pride and Prejudice be if Darcy wasn’t so proud in the beginning and therefore had no character arc? Or think about how the numerous plots of Downton Abbey would be different if none of the characters had distinct backgrounds, motivations, and personalities. No story would be the same without these elements. Characters are one of the primary driving sources behind any story.

I’m curious to know… have you done any interesting character development? And do you have any favorite books with well-developed characters?

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Evil: Villains and How They’re Presented

Hi guys! Whose life is super busy right now? Mine is. That’s why I haven’t been able to post anything for… yikes, a long time. ANYWAY, I finally have this month’s Monthly Theme planned out. This month’s them is Evil, and I’ll tell you why.

Next month is Easter. So, next month I’m going to do the theme of redemption. But in order to understand it, you have to see what we’re being redeemed from. Thus, this month I’ll be looking at evil. Plus, I’ve wanted to write a post on villains for a while. So here we go.

There are so many villains out there… Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, Prince Humperdinck, Professor Moriarty, Inspector Javert, the White Witch, Agent Smith, Loki… (apparently lots of them have titles in front of their names… except for Loki.) There are also some stories with multiple villains. Like, I don’t know… maybe something like LORD OF THE RINGS?! You’ve got Sauron, Sméagol, Saruman, Gríma Wormtongue, the Orcs, the Uruk-hai, the Witch King of Angmar, plus the rest of the Nazgûl, and if you want to consider the entire history of Middle-earth, you’ve also got Morgoth, (confession: I have never read The Silmarillion, so when I read it, I will give you the list of all the villains), not to mention Balrogs, giant spiders, fickle wood-elves, goblins, unfriendly residents of Laketown, Azog and Bolg, and last but not least, Smaug. (Come on, you should know by now that I can never pass up an opportunity to mention Benedict Cumberbatch.)

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aw look, it’s cute little smaug

I don’t know why, but I’ve always liked writing villains. Let me define what I mean when I say “villain,” because I have very specific criteria that all my villains have to meet…

  1. They have to be male. I don’t know why, but I just can’t see myself writing a female villain. I have nothing whatsoever against female villains, and lots of my favorite stories have female villains. It’s just that I don’t like writing them.
  2. They have to be evil. There are all different types of villains out there, and different ones work for different genres. For some stories, the villain may not be evil at all, like Biff from Back to the Future. In other stories, the villain may be the personification of evil itself… like Voldemort. For me, I always have to have the Voldemort type in my stories.
  3. I’ve always read that the villain should have a backstory that defines who he is, and that he should have some sort of motivation to oppose the hero or whatever he’s trying to do. In other words, he shouldn’t just be evil for no reason at all. Maybe you know that he wants to take over the universe but you don’t know why. (I’m guilty.) And… this is always a problem I have. I NEVER know why my villain is the way he is. But, a couple weeks ago, I figured out his entire backstory and now I’m SUPER excited about it!! No, I will not be giving you any spoilers.

Anyway, I’ve always liked writing my very specific villains. But there is more to evil than villains, just as there is more to good than heroes. The villain and the hero are mere representations of very real things in this world. I once wrote an essay for school on the nature of good and evil. It’t too long to recount here, but in it, I emphasized that the entire world has fallen short of perfection. We are all sinners; therefore, we are all evil. All sin is evil in God’s eyes. All of us have given into temptation; all of us have chosen to follow another god besides the Creator of life; all of us have chosen sin over righteousness; all of us have been born into this sin nature; and all of us will die like this. Everyone in this world is a sinner; therefore everyone is destined for eternal punishment. There is no hope for us. Evil rules our lives and there is no escape from its bondage. We are, and always will be, slaves.

Unless a Savior comes to redeem us.

Unless our Creator himself comes to pay for our salvation.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There should be a sort of desperation when we realize how evil we truly are. When we realize that this evil has been holding us captive ever since Adam and Eve sinned long ago in the Garden of Eden.

star-wars-1204193_640I think villains are meant to portray this. Bad guys are there to provide conflict for the story, yes, but there is also something more. What happens if the villain wins? Hmm? Think of your favorite story. Now ask yourself, what would have happened if the villain had won?

I don’t know, it depends on the story. Sauron would have ruled Middle-earth and everyone would have been his slaves. Voldemort probably would have killed everyone and taken over the wizarding world. If Biff had gotten his way, Marty’s life – and the entire space-time continuum – would have been ruined forever. If Prince Humperdinck had won, Westley would be dead and Buttercup would have been doomed to a horrible life of misery. And if the White Witch had won… never mind. Don’t even get me started on Narnia. There is sooooo much symbolism in the story, I don’t even know where to begin. Needless to say, all of Narnia would have perished in fire and water, borrowing her own words.

Do you see that? That’s desperation. Most people classify the things listed above as “stakes.” In any good story (and this applies to most genres), there are high stakes. The hero has to win. It is this fact that forces the hero to fight against the evil. We instinctively know that evil is not natural, that it was never meant to be. And when it threatens to become the highest power, we know we have to fight it until there is nothing left in us to fight with.

Villains are people who represent the very real presence of evil in our world. They are a sort of twisted reality – they are a nature contrary to what was meant to be in the beginning of time.

That’s all I have for now. I don’t know if this post will end up having more parts to it or not, but rest assured that I do have a couple of things planned for the month of April, and they are very compelling issues, so I will be forced to write them. I’ll probably have a ten-part series next month, knowing me, but I guess we’ll have to see.

Do you have a favorite villain? Why do you like them specifically? What would have happened if they had won?