Monday, November 14, 2011
Going to the Dark Side
After the release of Courting Miss Adelaide in 2008, a couple readers asked if I’d been abused. I found the question startling. Though some characters in the story endured abuse, I assured them I’d been blessed with a wonderful childhood and marriage, a good life. That question got me thinking—how do writers find the emotion necessary to write the dark side of life?
Shirley Jump and several Seekers shared how they write character emotions.
Cara James, Love by the Book, July 2011.
I think it's easy to empathize with other people's tragedies etc. because we've all lived through difficult moments or periods in our lives and managed to overcome and move on. The circumstances will differ for everyone, but the emotions are the same.
Mary Connealy, Out of Control, Ten Plagues and eBook The Sweetest Gift in an anthology “At Home for Christmas”—all available now.
I am pathologically non-confrontational. I will go to extreme lengths to avoid a difficult issue. This is not something I'm proud of. I am far more likely to smile and go along and tell little white lies to sooth a situation, then later gossip and stew and pout. It's not a good thing. But out of this stewing comes books. All the things I want to say but absolutely never ever would.
So I shoot people and I write villains who are cruel, heroes who issue orders and expect obedience, and heroines who are sassy and say whatever is on their minds right into the hero's face. I think of it as cheap psychotherapy.
Debby Giusti, THE CAPTAIN'S MISSION, LIS, October 2011.
Most of us have experienced some type of loss in our lives. Perhaps a job, a marriage, a loved one. Maybe it's been something less significant. Even a small loss that seems unimportant to others can cause struggle and stress. Those of us who are writers know too well about the pain of rejection and the feelings of unworthiness that can come after we read that sorry-but-I'm-going-to-pass-on-this-story letter. Even if we haven't experienced big hurts or anything as significant as our characters may be going through, we can still pull from the feelings we've had and apply them to our writing.
Ruth Logan Herne, Mended Hearts, LI, September 2011
Some from childhood, from remembering, but mostly empathy. The urge to help, to make things right. To fix. And it's directed at women with traumatic pasts, my way of applying balm to old wrongs.
But I believe the gift of the spirit starts the idea. Then I tap into the emotions of the it, the whys and wherefores. How angry would you be if your family was taken from you? What would you do to get them back and HOW HELPLESS would you feel if there was nothing you could do?
Right there, imagining that helplessness, I can feel the person's despair, and from that despair builds grief, guilt, questions, self-loathing, disappointment. So now I've got internal conflict, mental and emotional.
And when I know what the character's personality is (anxious to please, quiet, boisterous, a loner, a joiner, a leader, a quiet assessor) I try to see through his/her eyes how this tragedy would apply to them and then gauge their reactions. Because that personality type makes all the difference in how the problem gets handled.
I don't have to watch sad things. Or prep my head. I simply envision the tragedies around us, the sorrow on people's faces and apply words to it.
Missy Tippens, A House Full of Hope, LI, February 2012.
I mainly use things in my past and twist the emotions to fit the story—so it's experience that's been fictionalized. Other times it's from experiences of friends (like one whose kids chose to live with their dad—which I used in A Family for Faith). And then other times it's purely imagination—like my upcoming book where the hero ruined the heroine's sister's life by introducing her to alcohol (she became an alcoholic and druggie).
Shirley Jump, Family Christmas in Riverbend, December 2011.
I think everyone has tragedies in their lives and dark moments that they can go back to when they want to draw out that emotion in their writing. I remember when I was acting in a play in college, and I couldn’t figure out how to cry in a pivotal scene. The director told me to think of a moment that hurt me badly, and I went back to the day my grandmother died. I conjured that up every night during that scene, and it brought out that layer of emotion for my character. My character was upset about something entirely different, but I could relate to it by tapping into that core emotion of pain and loss. As an author, you don’t have to live the same disappointments and hurts as your characters, you just have to be able to tap into the emotions those events bring. In my December book, for instance, the hero has to deal with some pretty heavy guilt over an accident that he feels responsible for. I’ve never been in the same situation as him, but I could go back to moments of deep regret and pull on those when I was writing the hero’s POV. Writing deep emotion requires getting in touch with yourself, and feeling free enough as a writer to let your gut write the words.
Thanks to all these wonderful writers for sharing their process!
We’ve all experienced trauma and loss and the accompanying emotions. Losing loved ones produces grief and lessons on living. A health scare or bad diagnosis sends emotions into overdrive.
Not everything that enables us to write emotion is negative. We experience the joy of our countless blessings. But we're talking about pain in this post. We've all seen that blessings have a flipside. Falling in love and motherhood are two tickets to an emotional roller coaster ride. When we love someone we share their heartache, their pain. We live through broken arms, broken hearts, high fevers, low grades, lost kids and lost love. We use our experiences, the experiences of others and translate those feelings to the page.
So how do we writers do that?
Writers start with ourselves. We have to first know and care about our characters before we can put ourselves in their skin. Then we dig deep within ourselves for all the life we've seen and experienced. We open that vein and bleed on the page. I'm guessing that after you've written an emotional scene, you're as drained as I am. I cannot write strong emotion for hours.
Writers learn to show rather than tell emotion. We show emotion as actors do through character facial expressions, actions and dialogue.
Writers have another tool at our disposal. We can get into our characters’ heads. We know them. When I'm having trouble writing emotion, I usually don't know my characters well enough to feel how they'd react. Once we know them, we can express this emotion without telling by using significant details in the setting. The weather can reflect or contrast mood. Objects like a cold unlit fireplace can be used to echo the hero’s mood. Readers see their state of mind by how the character sees/describes every aspect of the story.
Writers give characters poignant memories with significant details that grab the reader's heart. We use the five senses to trigger those memories. To bring it all rushing back. But don't linger long. Writing long passages of what happened in the past interrupts the pace.
As I was scanning our Seekerville archives, I was impressed by the knowledge and expertise that's at our fingertips. Several posts talk about writing emotion. If you’d like examples of how to use setting to convey character emotion, check out this Seekerville post and this post.
So let’s talk emotion. For the writers out there, how do you get into your characters’ state of mind and express their emotions?
For the readers, share what in the story makes you laugh and cry.
Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of my January release, An Inconvenient Match.
After all the talk about dark emotion, I brought chilly-weather comfort food. Grab a serving of homemade moist pumpkin bread, steaming chicken noodle soup and creamy tapioca pudding.