I have a very difficult time putting emotion into my novels. To me, their emotions are obvious from their actions, but my readers (almost unanimously) say that they need some indicator of what these people are feeling.
Honestly, if an ex husband comes back with the stated intention of taking custody of their son, I think the woman’s emotions can pretty well be assumed. But apparently not.
So the third edit I do is emotion. At this point I have to put in the little actions, words, descriptions, that will tell my readers what I already feel is obvious.
Makes it difficult, and some might say that if I think it’s unnecessary I should skip it. Since I like the books better when this edit is done, I continue to do it.
This is another step of character development, and unfortunately many of my books are set in a world where visible emotion is frowned on. In many cases what I do is create physical tells for each character. So a character might pick at her skirt when she’s angry and fiddle with her hair when she’s being sarcastic, or whatever. If I can create distinct “tells” for each character they start to pop off the page, just a little.
I go through the book as many times as necessary, trying to put at least three emotion words or sentences on each page. Doesn’t always work that way, but I try.
Then it’s time for the other hard edit, even worse. Description.
This month I was pleased to attend the Utah Poet of the Year concert. This is a prestigious award given by the Utah Poets Society, of which I am not a member. The event was orchestrated professionally and the winner Dawnell Griffin, was sophisticated and regal in her graceful acceptance of the plaque and the reading of her poetry book, On Judgment Day.
She, with her skilled way of putting the right words on paper, had the entire body of the audience in tears. The book itself, a masterpiece, and a glimpse into the moment of tragedy in a relate-able way, was at it’s core nothing but pure honesty. That unabashed honesty made me think.
As writers we can’t help but put our viewpoint into our books. We build characters based on our perception of others, and ourselves. Sometimes that perception is wrong, or skewed, but it is how we see it. The best writers I know take experiences from their own life and inject those emotions into situations that require that depth in their novels. After all, isn’t that how we generate a believable character? To fill him/her with human emotions?
Dawnell Griffin was able to put her emotions on paper without fear of being judged and claim them as her own.
As a novelist, I get the luxury of having characters present my emotions in a less scrutinizing way. The brilliance of that maneuver is my characters can sift through the feelings I give them and I can discard them as I move onto other types of experiences.
You may not have to write as bravely as Dawnell did, but the most important lesson in this to me was that emotions not only help your reader to relate to your characters, but also to validate the reader’s experiences in life. I will always feel very fortunate to have been at that concert because Dawnell’s book of poems made me feel. Emotions and ideas that I’ve had in my life could relate to her emotions she shared. Her traumatic moment was still full of hope and her true character, without being bogged down by self pity or martyrdom, shone through.
May we all be so brave.
By Lillian J. Banks