I just finished teaching Intensifying Emotion in the Romance Novel for OIRWA and have just started teaching Developing a Vocabulary for Writing Emotion so I thought I’d share a bit about using empathy to create emotional reactions in characters and in readers for those that weren’t able to take the class.
In the workshop, I began our discussion of empathy by talking a little bit about descriptions and strong nouns, verbs, and adjectives. That is because nouns, verbs, and adjectives provide the basis for the character’s and reader’s experience within a story. The more specific these words are the stronger the character’s experience (and thereby the reader’s experience) of the story will be. All description has some emotional import because characters are EXPERIENCING what they describe for the reader. When we experience things emotion is inherent in the experience even if what we experience emotionally is numbness. We might experience the same physical actions taken by a character differently depending upon whether the character takes these actions in the night or the day…or whether the weather when they are happening is sunny, snowy or rainy.
When we write scene details such as the place where an event happens, the color of clothing that the characters wear, the weather, and the time of day, we are providing emotional cues to the reader who will build their own mental replica of the scene we’ve described in the pages of our novel.
Readers begin the process of empathizing with the characters and their situation way back at this level…so getting these details right is important. This is not to say that you can’t have a bleak scene happen on a bright sunny day. You can. It can even be quite powerful to do so. But it is a bit more challenging because you have to plant more emotional cues for the reader so that the reader knows how to feel and their emotional empathy can be tweaked…directed…focused in the way that you want it to be focused. Writing is after all much about controlling and managing the reader’s emotional reactions in order to give them a good virtual reality experience.
One situation in which using empathy alone to create emotion causes a problem is when describing emotional numbness or the emotions of a character who keeps their emotions deeply buried. As authors we often think that emotional numbness feels like – nothing – a blank canvas and so we don’t describe it. Because a character has their emotions deeply buried we can sometimes think that they don’t feel anything at all…and that’s not the case either.
What we often do with these kinds of emotional challenges is describe a scene and action and ask the reader to use their natural empathy to discern the feelings of the characters.
Look at the following example:
Lydia pressed her body against the wall of the stairwell trying to make herself as small as she could. She eased down one marble step and then another, feeling her way through the darkness, sliding her hand down the opulent gold hand rail. She hadn’t ventured into the streets since the Black Tide. The streets had become dangerous places where murderous gangs of thugs robbed, raped and murdered without consequence.
She stopped at what remained of the once opulent glass door to the high rise apartment building and studied the street. Her eyes sought movement even as she hoped for quiet stillness.
She studied what was left of the downtown landscape. The skeletons of windowless skyscrapers, the hulking, burned out metal armatures of overturned vehicles, and the sightless eyes of decaying bodies left where they’d fallen.
The writing isn’t bad in the example but there are some things to notice.
*Notice that Lydia doesn’t FEEL anything as she eases down the steps…she doesn’t miss the opulence of her former life.
*She doesn’t FEEL anything about whatever it is causing her to go out into the street.
*She doesn’t have any emotional reaction to the sightless eyes of decaying bodies.
*She doesn’t FEEL dread or fear or anything else about going out in the street. She allows that it is a dangerous place…but you don’t feel fear on her part. It could be she’s seen enough, been through enough that she is numb to the horror she witnesses but there isn’t a sense of numbness either. It is more like the emotion is just missing.
*This sample has the problem that I call “The words are pretty…but…” The words on the page are pretty…they work well together…BUT it doesn’t go far enough.
Part of the problem is that the author has used the pretty words that describe the scene and then expects the reader to fill in all the blanks with empathy. The author has described a horrific landscape in the aftermath of the Black Tide which must have been pretty awful…and yet there is not an emotional word or an emotional reaction anywhere in sight.
*Can I picture the scene? Sure. It’s like the images in the hit TV series Walking Dead. I can draw on my memories from Walking Dead to fill in the blanks in the scene and pretty much experience the physical aspects of the scene.
*I can see the scene…but I can’t FEEL the scene. The reason that I can’t FEEL the scene is that the character doesn’t REACT to the scene emotionally. The writer has created a well-drawn scene with a lot of detail. I can picture myself there. But any feeling that I feel stems entirely from empathy…and I don’t know Lydia or her situation well enough to have a lot of empathy for her situation at this point…so the emotional landscape remains pretty much non-existent.
*I’ll also point out here that this author has followed the advice to never, ever, ever, name an emotion. The advice has been followed…the passage is still not anywhere close to as powerful emotionally as it could be.
Let’s see what we can do to improve on that a bit.
Lydia pressed her body against the wall of the stairwell trying to make herself as small as she could. Her heart pounded dully in her chest, trepidation a dull ache, as she eased down one marble step and then another, feeling her way through the darkness by sliding her hand along the polished gold hand rail she’d once thought of as the height of opulence. She hadn’t ventured into the streets since The Black Tide. The streets had become dangerous places where murderous gangs of thugs robbed, raped and murdered without consequence.
She stopped at what remained of the once opulent etched glass door to the high rise apartment building and studied the street. Her eyes sought movement even as she hoped for stillness.
She studied what was left of the downtown landscape hating the haze of tears that clouded her eyes and the tightness that emanated from her throat. She’d thought she’d become immune to the devastation, that she’d processed the grief and yet the skeletons of windowless skyscrapers that had once twinkled in the darkness like so many jewels in the sky stabbed through the numbness filling her with overwhelming hopelessness. She cast her eyes over the hulking, burned out metal armatures of overturned vehicles, and tried to avoid the sightless stares of decaying bodies left where they’d fallen.
There are some things to notice:
*There are 3 paragraphs in this example. Within the 3 paragraphs there are only 4 places where I have upped the emotional ante. The difference between flat description that doesn’t impart emotion and description which includes emotion is not a lot. It’s 4 half sentences…not even complete sentences. What it really amounts to is looking at what you have written in description (which most of us write first) and then looking to see where you can add emotion to the descriptive phrases. Once you’ve added you need to look again and make sure that the emotion follows a logical arc, that it grows if there is reason for the emotion to intensify.
*Another thing to notice is that not everything is explicitly written as internally felt emotion. Some elements of the emotional rise and fall within the example are more hinted at and intuited by the reader than spelled out explicitly.
*Even before I spell out the sense of numbness that she feels (and in essence wants to feel) I hint at it. She hates the tears. She thought she’d processed the grief yet the windowless skyscrapers stab through the numbness I’ve hinted she feels.
*In a sense I am showing you someone shell-shocked. Someone who is in a sense numb even though some things still get through the shroud of numbness. That Lydia who once lived in the opulent high rise with marble steps and gold hand rails doesn’t respond with horror at the sightless stares of the dead people decaying on the street shows someone who is mostly numb—probably because she has to be to survive in this new world. If the example continued I would probably show more of why she doesn’t respond to the bodies in the next paragraph.
Many of us write paranormals, urban fantasies, romantic suspense and other genres which include some scenes of horror like this one. Others write nice, traditional, contemporary romances with heroes and heroines who still live the opulent lifestyle.
Though the descriptions we write are often less intense in traditional contemporary romances that doesn’t give us a get out of jail free card when it comes to including emotional elements within the description.
We may describe the heroine’s blond curly hair, her sparkling blue eyes, her smooth complexion, her physical shape. These things too require emotional elements within the description.
Chad looked toward her, his eyes snagged by the soft tendrils of blond hair that slipped free of the messy bun on the top of her head to frame her face. Her blue eyes sparkled with a hint of mischief that echoed in the wide smile that filled her soft face.
*Sounds a bit like a shopping list doesn’t it? She has blond hair – blue eyes – she looks like someone who likes mischief. She has a wide smile. A soft face.
*Blah. It’s flat. He doesn’t REACT to any of this…and so the reader won’t either. In fact, this example is so bad the reader doesn’t really know whether she is friend or foe…
Let’s see if we can fix it up a bit:
The tiny woman with the big blue eyes that sparkled with mischief and challenge was not what he’d expected when he set out to serve the search warrant. This woman didn’t look like the kind of woman Bruce Crydon would marry. This woman was too soft. From the top of her head where her curly blond hair was piled in what his niece called a messy bun to the tips of her pink toenails this woman was soft, feminine. Everything about her made a man itch to protect her, but he knew Bruce Crydon didn’t have a protective bone in his body, especially when it came to women.
*Notice – there are not a lot of places where I’ve used physical sensations to describe the hero’s feelings here. Instead I’ve described the heroine in a way that allows the reader to intuit his emotions. I’ve hinted at surprise first – this woman isn’t what he expects Bruce Crydon’s wife to be like. Next, I’ve described her as soft…and he has a reaction to her softness – to her soft hair and painted toenails. I’ve not said he feels protective…but as a reader you know he feels protective even if he doesn’t.
*When describing characters we want to weave in thoughts and feelings with the details of physical appearance so that the viewpoint character reacts to the description as they are channeling it. There is a big difference between the grocery list of traits in the first example and the second example where I’ve added a thought or two and written the passage so that the character is feeling as he is looking and describing this woman.
Which description makes you more curious, more interested in reading this story?
Remember that the absence of emotional reaction doesn’t equal character numbness. It equals missing emotional reaction. Numbness has a feeling associated with it. Feelings that are buried deep require a certain pressure and tension to keep them buried…and that pressure and tension is part of the emotional experience.
Remember that following the advice to not name emotions can get you a passage that is pretty but doesn’t work very well. Emotion names used sparingly and with other details can help the reader choose the right empathetic response.
Remember that even character descriptions can be emotive…and that they are more powerful when they are. Make the viewpoint character react to the specific elements of the other character’s appearance.
Remember it’s okay to expect the reader to use their own built in empathy. It’s okay to expect them to empathize with the character’s situation or experience. However, empathy needs to be directed and focused. Use emotion names and other emotional descriptions to help target the reader’s emotion so that it ends up following the character’s closely. You can think of it like the story of Hansel and Gretel where Hansel and Gretel leave a trail of crumbs in order to find their way back to their home. In this case, you are like Hansel and Gretel leaving a trail of crumbs that help your reader nail the character’s emotion so that they can experience it with him or her.