Monday, March 18, 2019

Bleeding onto the Page: a writing exercise

by Jan Drexler

One of the most often heard criticisms of stories is that the characters lack depth. I’m sure you’ve heard the term, “cardboard characters.” On the other hand, I’m sure you’ve also found yourself in tears while reading a book whose characters tugged at your emotions.

But how do you make sure your characters are filled with enough emotional depth to touch your readers’ hearts?

You have to tap into your own emotions. That heart-tugging connection with your readers comes from the depths of your own soul.

We have all had experiences in our lives. You know the kind. Sad ones. Tragic ones. Or the longing to experience something that never happens.

The experiences and longings we really don’t want to talk about.

We bury them deep within our souls and keep them between us and God. We might not even share them with our spouse or other loved ones. Not even our most trusted friend.

Those are the experiences we need to tap into. 

Here’s an excerpt from my book, “The Amish Nanny’s Sweetheart” where I dig deep into my character’s soul. Guy is an orphan, working on an Amish farm, and Judith is the neighbor girl he's falling in love with.

Guy took three steps into the barn before he remembered the work he needed to do was inside the house instead of out here. But his only thought had been to get away from Judith. He heard Eli’s crying end and turned to watch Judith comforting the boy. Her head bent over his brown curls as she talked to him, then she wrapped him in her arms as he clung to her, safe and secure.

Judith rose and went into the house, but the scene clouded over as tears filled Guy’s eyes. He let them fall, leaning his head against the solid wood of the door frame. He had shut her out and pushed her away just as much as he had shoved Eli off his lap and onto hers. But why?

Because the feelings she brought out stopped his very breath. He dug his fingernails into the oak beam as the pain of those feelings overwhelmed him. If he could be little again…if he could see Mama again…if he could feel safe again…

He tore his thoughts away. He was a grown man, not a child. His life was laid out in front of him. A stark and lonely track with no end.

What was it about Judith that upset his well-ordered life? Before she’d come along, he had been happy.

Well, maybe not happy. But he could work, laugh and enjoy David’s company and Verna’s cooking. But now that he knew her, it was as if her steady blue eyes looked right into him and saw the scared little boy who needed a friend.

She made him long for things that would never happen. Things like a home. His own family. A…a wife. A partner in life. Someone to love and to love him. Someone who wouldn’t leave him behind.

How could something he wanted so badly hurt so much?

So he had pushed her away when she awakened those longings in him again. But the hurt only grew worse until it felt like someone had sucker-punched him and left him gasping for breath.

“Please, God.” The words came out as a whisper, barely passing over his lips as he breathed out.

I never had the same experiences Guy had lived through – no family, no place to call his home – but I have experienced unfulfilled dreams. I knew the pain Guy was feeling, and the confused emotions. The lashing out when I should have been holding close. Despair rather than trust. I tried to give Guy those thoughts and feelings – even though bringing them into play was more painful than I ever thought it would be.

How can you bring your emotions into your characters’ lives? Let’s do a little exercise.

Take a moment right now and dig deep into your soul. Deeper. Open those closed doors. Do you remember that heartache? That unfulfilled dream? That painful loss? That thing that hurts so much that it takes your breath away? You can feel the ache…physical…emotional…

Don’t hide from it. Don’t push it away. Feel it. Let the tears fall.

Now, capture that feeling. Write down that feeling. Write from your pain. Bleed onto the page.

And don’t worry…you’re not going to share this with anyone.

Do you have it? Did you capture that feeling?

Now, give that feeling to your character. If you haven’t already, dig into your character’s past. Find out what wound she holds close that has never healed. Find out what her deepest secret desire is. Tap into that. Give your character the words she or he needs to express that deep want. The unfulfilled dream.

Take your time to do this exercise. We’ll wait.

* * * * * * * * *

All right! Is everyone back with us?

Let's go on - -

You might never put the words of this exercise into your story, but you will use the emotions you uncovered.

And if you did this exercise with us today, I can hear you asking: 

“Why? Why put myself through this pain? I’ve been there before, 
and I don’t want to go back there.” 

I can only say this: It would be tragic for you to have traveled that path and suffered what you have suffered if you never handed it over to God to redeem it. He knows your pain and sorrow, and maybe…just maybe…He will use what you have written to comfort someone going through the same kind of sorrow. Maybe…just maybe…He will use that to bring someone to Himself.

Isn’t that reason enough? 

Let’s talk about story characters! Tell us about a story character that has touched you deeply. What do you like most about that character and why?

One commenter today will win one copy of their choice of my Love Inspired Historical books! 

There are six to choose from!!!


  1. You know this is such sage advice. And my add-on would be that we should never fear delving into a painful moment because it can be the world's best therapy for you, the writer...

    And then the reader.

    I think the more we tap into the reality of sorrowful, angst-riddled and joyous moments, the more likely we are to take the reader on the roller coaster ride that makes the story touch heart and soul.

    Great advice, Jan. Delving is an integral part of our job, although I did get scolded once from a reader that she didn't like to read about people with money problems because if she's reading, she wants to be CARRIED AWAY!!!!

    So you can't please everyone, LOL... and that's okay, too.

    1. I've read some of those "carry me away" books (I always think of that old Calgon commercial!). Sometimes you want to leave the real world behind, but when I read a book, I want to experience other people's lives. The good and the bad. I love to read about God working through every character.

      And I've been on some of your roller coaster rides, Ruthy. Always a mixture of smiles and tears!

    2. Ruthy, you're right about it being cheap therapy! :)

  2. This is definitely good stuff, Jan. I'm not so good with feelings and I know that my writing lacks sometimes because of that. This is a great exercise. Thanks for sharing.

    1. It's hard to dig into those feelings. Once we're past a traumatic or painful episode in our lives, we don't ever want to revisit it. But like Ruthy said, it's good therapy!

    2. Glynis, I think it helps if you write it without thinking about other people reading it. You can just dump it out on the page and look at possibly editing it later before letting anyone else read it. Hopefully you can be brave when you get to the editing. :)

  3. Good morning everyone!

    I've filled the buffet with healthy food this morning - a fruit and yogurt bar! Help yourself to the yogurt, then add whatever toppings your heart desires! Coffee and tea are along the back wall.

    I've done some delving into my heroine's character over the weekend - an abused wife who is now a widow. Hmmm... Not in my own experience, but there are things from my past that speak to this. It made for an emotional weekend!

    Today I'll be using those emotions as I add words to my WIP. :-)

    1. Jan, it sounds as if you had a good writing weekend!

  4. Great post, Jan. But going to those places is tough. I remember having to rewrite one book three times because I wasn't willing to go to those places God was calling me to go with one of my characters. When I finally did, I cried my way through those scenes. But my editor loved it and had no revisions. And that book was a Carol Award finalist. I still tear up when I think about one particular scene. The one I'd avoided for months until I finally did things God's way instead of my own. And the story wouldn't have been the same without it.

    1. You're so right, Mindy. In fact, this post almost didn't happen because I didn't want to go to my own dark places, and I hesitate asking others to do it. But how else do we tap into those emotions that turn a story into an experience for our readers (and ourselves)?

    2. Jan, I think this is one of the ways we go deeper with God. And, ultimately, why He calls us to write.

    3. I truly believe God gives me stories so He can deal with me on issues as I write. I learn a lot about myself with each book.

    4. Missy, I couldn't agree more. I've often said that whatever my characters are having to learn is something God's trying to teach me, too.

  5. I agree, great post, Jan! Sometimes I've found myself writing something and wondered, "where did THAT come from?" but when I really think about it I can remember. It may pop up in my writing in a different form but the underlying feeling is there. Writing is therapy and part of God's gift to us as writers. And I'm so glad you said that we can use what we've been through to connect to readers. It makes it bearable.

    1. I remember going through a particularly bad experience, and someone told me, "Maybe God is giving this experience to you so that you'll be able to help others."

      Believe me, that is NOT what I needed to hear at the time...but it's true. Now, more than thirty years later, I can use what I learned from that experience to help others.

      And the's just what I need. :-)

  6. Hi Jan & Ruth:

    Think more than just sorrow! Think the alpha and omega of emotions. Seek from the depths of depression to the soaring ecstasy of the beatific vision.

    I believe that the best emotional examples are from real human 'characters' who can reveal the most profound existential insights into the human condition.

    If you want pain expressed to the deepest and most crushing angst, then I suggest you study Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and philosopher, who survived the holocaust in a concentration camp. His living hell caused his questioning about how a good God could allow the holocaust to happen to His own chosen people? What justice could this suffering have? What meaning could it express? What was its purpose? Is life itself meaningless?

    If you want to glimpse what it is like to stand on the edge of an infinite abyss and seek meaning when all rational thought screams that the world makes it self-evident that existence itself is evil and meaningless. Read "Man's Search for Meaning" and experience hell incarnate. Then feel the triumph of a man overcoming the most terrifying human horrors while still clinging to his humanity. All else after this pain and suffering will resonate at a lesser emotional frequency.

    Alas! Pain is only half the story...the bitter end of the spectrum. There is also ecstasy, the experience of the sublime, a happiness so transcendent and so refined that the experiencer herself ceases to be an individual 'self' but rather becomes one with the divine infinite presence.

    Read about St. Teresa and her descriptions of ecstasy. Seek joy. Experience what some might call 'nirvana'. Feel the void filled with the joy of a beatific vision as descirbed in Dante's "Paradisio".

    Read the Christian mystics' poetry of the loss of self in the joining in oneness with the divine. This is a POV without a person experiencing it. Only poetry can convey this mystic reality so common to the saints.

    Somewhere between this agony and ecstasy is the every day world which is very trod providing a range of emotions from which we can choose as if in a cafeteria.

    BTW, in a more terrestrial mode, emotions are one of the most direct ways to create sympathetic characters.

    Consider this wonderful example from Missy's "Her Valentine Reunion" which opens the book:

    In a preemptive strike against the Valentine’s Day funk that hit her every year in February, Abbie Rogers had been working on her latest craft project she’d dubbed Operation Kill Cupid.

    She’d finished it just in time. After one last blast of steam, she turned off the iron and lifted the completed lap quilt from the ironing board. Suspending it by the corners and waving it in the breeze to cool the fabric, she carried it to her bedroom. She lovingly draped it over her hope chest—or hopeless chest as she and a friend had once called them. From now on, instead of looking at the hope chest filled with painful mementos and lost dreams, she would look at her quilt, embroidered with her new life statement.

    Single doesn’t mean alone. God is my portion. I will be content."

    (Tippens, Missy. Her Valentine Reunion: A Home to Dahlia, Georgia, Novella (Book 3) . Kindle Edition.)

    I just fell in love with Abbie on the first page! It's not just about what your characters feel but also about what the reader feels about your characters.


    1. You are so right, Vince. And I apologize for leaving out the second half of the equation when talking about our characters' emotions!

      But I think it's much easier to describe joy. That's an emotion we want to revisit, explore, and celebrate! Happiness is much easier to talk about than the depths of sorrow.

      Maybe that's why most authors love writing the happily-ever-after ending and hate the emotional mid-point of the story!

      Our characters need both - heartbreak and inexpressible joy.

    2. Vince, thanks for sharing my excerpt! I had such fun with that. It's loosely based on my sister, who had made a small quilt with a similar statement...right before she met her future husband (at the age of 40). :)

    3. Hi Jan:

      You wrote:

      "But I think it's much easier to describe joy. That's an emotion we want to revisit, explore, and celebrate! Happiness is much easier to talk about than the depths of sorrow.."

      Absolutely. I can agree that it is easier and more pleasant to write about happy events from the writer's psychological POV. But I don't think it is easier from a technical or craftsmanship perspective. The 'easiness' is more about how the writer feels when writing about these happy things than it is about the technical difficulty of so doing.

      When the POV objective is making the reader feel the sad events in the story, then suffering or outrage is far easier to instill in the reader.

      For example: if a character kicks a little puppy, it is almost like a physical slap across the reader's face. If a character puts a baby out in the rain as a punishment for crying too much, the outrage would truly physically upset a reader and the book might go flying across the room and that author never read again.

      However, it may take a whole book to create the setup and emotional foundation to make the reader experience the joy of the HEA. That joy can be so hard to create that some readers will resort to reading the last few pages of the book to sample the HEA before buying the book. And I'm not sure any writer could send the reader into a state of euphoria by reading the HEA.

      Please don't get me wrong. I don't object to what you've written in your post because I fully agree with it. Want I wanted to do is show how there are different POVs in operation and how these differences can effect the writer's craftsmanship.

      There is a difference between 'hard to write' because it is emotionally difficult to bring yourself to write something and 'hard to write' because it is technically difficult to achieve the objectives sought ... even when you love the experience of writing it.

      Do you see any merit in any of this? It really is just an example of over-thinking a situation because so doing is a physical proxy for joy. :)


    4. Hi Missy:

      No wonder it's so interesting and creative! I think the real events would make a powerful 'second time around' novella.

      Just imagine the "Dear Reader" section you could write at the end of the story. That would be a second HEA!


  7. This is so scary for me...tapping into emotions that I would rather bury. But I almost always find that the characters I care about the most are ones that I have dug deep to find some emotional experience that we share.

    Very nice post today, Jan!

    1. Thanks, Erica!

      And it is scary. That's why I almost didn't write this post...

    2. Erica, that's so true about our own characters. We care about them more deeply when they're "channeling" our deepest emotions.

  8. Lovely, Jan! And all so important. My mother died much to young. She came to visit for Christmas. I had three little ones at the time. We all became sick. My mother didn't survive. So many of my early books draw on what I experienced, that feeling of going deeper and deeper into darkness as sickness ravaged my family. Of course, the Good Lord supported us throughout that time, which is also what I include in my stories.

    Your excerpt was so nicely written. Love your stories!

    1. Thank you, Debby!

      I remember you sharing that experience before. What a tragedy. But you've used that experience to show how God never leaves us, never forsakes us, even when we're going through the valley. And every one of your stories conveys that truth.

  9. Good post, Jan. I am an avid reader, not writer, and realize you authors have a BIG job trying to satisfy us readers! lol I enjoy your books; thanks for your giveaway. Keep up the great writing!

  10. Jan, what a great post! I love this method to bring out the depth in characters and thus emotions in readers. I've used it before, to the point of crying while typing. I've also skipped writing scenes before, knowing I didn't have the emotional energy to do it justice at that moment, and then came back to it later when I felt ready to write it. It can be draining but oh, so worth it.

    1. Thank you, Missy! Yes, writing these scenes takes a LOT of emotional energy. It's best to be prepared.

  11. Interesting post. I love the characters in Kim Vogel Sawyer books as they have depth.

    1. I love her characters, too. When we can lose ourselves in the story and the characters' lives, that's the best!

  12. What a great exercise for authors! I'm currently reading The Widow of Gettysburg and the main character, Liberty Holloway, really stands out to me. She finds such strength in the tasks of caring for others. She's really something!

    1. That book is on my reading list! Thanks for the recommendation!

  13. I recently read a book about a young girl in medieval times who willingly was nailed up in a religious cell. She led a life of prayer and contemplation. As you can imagine this was a story about internal struggles. A quiet read, but Sarah has stayed with me.

  14. Such a thought provoking post Jan. Thanks for sharing. I cant think of one character in particular that stands out but rather authors who create emotional experiences over again. Lee-Ann B

  15. Thank you, so much, for this wonderful exercise. Love your historicals.


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