Thanks to author Jacqueline Gum for this guest post!
You’ve got the basic story and you’ve already named your characters. And you know what you want them to do, but how do you give your characters emotion? Because without it, they are two dimensional paper cutouts and readers are looking for an emotional experience with your characters; a relationship.
Although dialogue is an excellent vehicle for expressing your character’s thoughts and opinions, it can’t provide a full emotional experience. There has to be non-verbal communication like body language and mental responses. Physical signals are how our bodies react when we experience emotion. For example, I wanted one of my characters to convey a very deep distress, anguish over the death of her friend. I wanted the reader to see this character beyond the expected tears.
So I watched some old movies without any sound at all and studied the actors’ physical signs of distress. I picked up on clenched fists and hand rubbing. I noticed cords in the neck of a distressed character and loved the way he paced as his eyes moved wildly from side to side. In another movie, I picked up on a male character that repeatedly checked his watch as he clenched his jaw.
A lot of writers get caught up with the eyes to convey emotion. It’s true that the eyes are often the first things we see. But I have found them to be the most difficult to describe. How often can eyes close, open wide, narrow, tear up or squint? And while writing about eyes can be effective, the reader could have a more fulfilling experience if the writer digs a little deeper into the emotion by showing the character’s behavior through body movement and cues.
Some examples include:
- Cues for annoyance – a reddening face, stalking off to get some air, throwing hand in the air in a gesture of surrender, nodding tightly, as if holding back an insult, carefully controlling one’s voice.
- Physical annoyance – pacing, complaining, swatting at the air, finger-tapping a table, holding head in hands.
- Internal annoyance – headache, sensitivity to noise, stiffness in the jaw or neck.
It’s the power of emotion that connects a reader to the story and the characters. The difficulty comes in writing it well because the writer has to balance showing too little feeling with too much, all while keeping it engaging and fresh!
Below is a before and after example of my own writing before my limited study of “silent” movies. It is my intention to convey David’s physical exhibit of emotion.
BEFORE: Giovanna spotted David alone in the backyard and winced when she saw him looking so sad. Clearly he was in deep mourning. He looked up and saw her staring and blushed with embarrassment.
AFTER: Giovanna wove her way through a room full of mourners until she spotted David through the window. He was alone in the backyard; his shoulders were drawn into his chest and there was an uncharacteristic fragility patent in his curved neck and bowed head. When he turned and saw her staring, his cheeks flushed red, as though he’d been caught naked.
Jacqueline Gum is the author of Confessions of a Corporate Slut and has recently completed another novel, The Accuser’s Burden. Her writing reflects contemporary questions of social injustice, which she also blogs about each week in her “Where’s the Justice?” themed blog.