One of the common problems I see with how authors show emotion in their manuscripts is that they confuse the guidelines for showing viewpoint characters’ emotions with the guidelines for showing non-viewpoint characters’ emotions. This is important because how we show emotion in writing depends a great deal upon whose emotion we’re showing.
In my classes on deep point of view, we talk about the vantage point of the viewpoint from which the story is conveyed very early in the class. It’s the vantage point that determines whether the point of view is deep, shallow, or omniscient. One can think of deep point of view as being a point of view in which the viewpoint character is describing the events of the story from a vantage point inside himself…which is much the same vantage point that all of us experience as we go about our normal daily lives. Most authors who write in shallow point of view write as if they are writing from the perspective of a camera strapped to the forehead of a viewpoint character. The character is still telling the story but his vantage point is outside of himself…focused outward…largely disconnected from internal experiences like thoughts, feelings, and spiritual experiences. Omniscient viewpoint is a viewpoint which is even further outside of the character. It’s often described as being a godlike point of view in that the vantage point of the narrator – whether that’s a character or the author’s own narration – seems far removed from the character in that the narrator sees things in a bigger, broader, more all-encompassing way than we experience in real life. Omniscient viewpoint is considered an all-knowing point of view. It allows the narrator to tell the reader things that he wouldn’t have known at the point in the story that he’s describing. You’ll see this sometimes in phrases like, she never would have guessed it then, but her life was about to change in an exciting way.
Understanding viewpoint is important in understanding the differences between writing the emotional experiences of viewpoint and non-viewpoint characters because vantage point is what accounts for the difference between how we describe the emotions of viewpoint and non-viewpoint characters.
Remember that when we write in deep point of view the vantage point of the viewpoint character is INSIDE himself/herself. From that vantage point a character can focus either inside himself on the sensations and experiences inside himself or he can focus outside himself on the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and the tactile experiences outside himself. This is important!
When a character is describing his emotional experiences (or we’re writing his emotional experiences for him in our manuscript) the character’s experience of his emotions is largely going to be internal. When real people in real life feel emotions they generally feel a physical sensation somewhere inside their body. They ascribe emotional meaning to this sensation. For example, they might feel a heavy sensation on their chest and identify the feeling as sadness or maybe grief. They might feel a bubbly, giddy feeling inside and might identify the feeling as joy or excitement. They might feel tense, jumpy, uneasy and identify the feeling as nervousness, worry, or unease.
The emotions of viewpoint characters are experienced INTERNALLY.
Think about this. When was the last time you were raging mad at someone and you thought about your own eyes shooting fire or your own eyes narrowing? Doesn’t happen right? When you are inside you and you are experiencing emotions most of the time you experience physical sensations in your body. You might physically feel a muscle in your jaw jump or you might physically feel your jaw clench. These are physical experiences that are felt inside a character…or a person.
When we are describing the emotions of non-viewpoint characters the rules shift.
Remember that when we write in first person point of view, third person limited point of view, or third person limited point of view with multiple points of view EVERYTHING that comes into the story is something that is experienced by the viewpoint character. There are no exceptions. You can’t describe what a character almost saw…or what he wasn’t aware of because he was sleeping or was unconscious. Everything that comes into the story comes in through the viewpoint character’s experience. This includes how the emotional experiences of the non-viewpoint character are experienced and conveyed to the reader.
What this means is that the emotions of the non-viewpoint character are intuited by the viewpoint character through the facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and other actions of the non-viewpoint character. If the viewpoint character moves toward the non-viewpoint character suddenly and she shrinks back he may intuit that she is afraid of him or that she is afraid that he is going to strike her. He’s picking up her emotion – fear – through her physical action – drawing away – which he is ascribing meaning (she’s afraid) to.
If a viewpoint character tells the non-viewpoint character a dirty joke and she dips her head, looks at her shoes and avoids looking at him he can intuit through her physical action of dipping her head and looking at her shoes that she is embarrassed by his joke.
Viewpoint characters experience emotions directly–largely internally.
Non-viewpoint characters’ emotions are shown through physical action, facial expression, body language, or tone of voice that the viewpoint character witnesses and ascribes meaning to.
When you want to show the viewpoint character’s emotions show them directly. Think about what the feeling feels like in the character. What physical sensations does the character feel when he feels that emotion? Where do the sensations live? Do they stay the same or do they shift? If they shift how do they move? Do they crawl? Swell? Unfurl? Unfold? Expand? Jab?
When you want to show the non-viewpoint character’s emotions think about how you would recognize the emotion through someone’s facial expression, mannerisms, body language, tone of voice, or physical action…then weave these actions into the fabric of your scene so that your viewpoint character is experiencing them.
If you’d like to learn more about writing emotion check out my upcoming workshops. In March I’ll be teaching Intensifying Emotion and in April I’ll be teaching Developing a Vocabulary for Writing Emotion. Both classes are hosted by OIRW.