Karl Iglesias in Writing for Emotional Impact, states we can experience three different types of emotion when we read books or watch movies.
Voyeuristic emotions relate to our curiosity about new information, new worlds and the relationship between characters. In this mindset we are interested onlookers but perhaps not fully emotionally engaged.
Vicarious emotions are when we identify so closely with a character, we feel what they feel. Their struggle is our struggle.
Visceral emotion is an intense physical (stomach clenching) sense of curiosity, anticipation, tension, surprise, fear, excitement, laughter, and so on (a real page turner!)
Great books evoke all these emotions.
So first ask yourself, what’s the heart of my story?
And by heart I mean emotional truth. That little nugget of familiarity, which has your reader identifying with your character and his situation, that spark of recognition that makes your character feel believable and real.
For every hurdle your character faces, ask yourself, what would I feel and what would I do in that situation (at that age and that time)? Life experience is invaluable, but research can help fill the gaps: first person letters/autobiographies/live film footage. Failing that, a keen perception, a good imagination and a way with words!
These are the three ways I build a connection between readers and my characters.
Recognition (understanding and empathy) To identify with a character we must feel (or have felt) the same as they do. If a character is well drawn (and the author understands human nature well) readers can empathise with and share the characters situation, feelings and motives, and then experience the story directly through the characters eyes.
Fascination (interest) We are attracted to what’s different and unusual. It’s human nature to be curious. A multidimensional villain, flawed hero or quirky sidekick are great hooks, as are the magical or dangerous worlds they inhabit.
Mystery (curiosity, anticipation and tension) Children’s books are full of characters with mysterious origins, super powers and secrets to be unlocked.
Think about Harry Potter.
What character and story elements did J.K Rowling use to help us identify with and care about Harry?
He’s an orphan. He lives in the cupboard under the stairs. The horrendous Dursley’s. The scar on his forehead. The mystery of his parent’s death. Wizards on the front lawn. Magic… and that’s only in the first two chapters!
So how exactly do we show a character’s emotional reaction on the page.
After every event (action) there is a reaction.
As a writing exercise, note all the emotional highs and lows you have in a single day and your physical, verbal and emotional reactions to them.
Use all the usual writing techniques to show, don’t tell, and mix them up a little.
Internal monologue (voice)
This extract is from We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – 14-year-old Cadence describes how she felt when her father walked out on her and her mother.
My father put a last suitcase in the back of the Mercedes and started the engine. Then he pulled a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down onto a flowerbed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound then from my eyes, my ears, my mouth, it tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house…
This scene is three pages into the book and sets up Cadence’s state of mind. You can feel her pain.
Even the fast moving, criminally cool, Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer), “felt a lump in his throat. Most uncharacteristic,” at the mention of his missing father and “blinked back a few rebellious tears,” at his mother’s mad ramblings. (Chapter 2)
At Christmas, I watched 50 Best Children’s Books, presented by David Walliams and guests. Winnie the Pooh was in the top spot. Julia Walters read an extract and it struck me how emotive the writing is.
“We’ll be friends forever won’t we, Pooh?” Asked Piglet.
“Even longer,” Pooh answered. “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”
I’ve read a lot of picture books lately (drafts and published) that completely omit emotional content. There’s lots of colourful action but no point to it at all. Very young children cannot articulate moods and emotions but they certainly do feel and show them. Picture books are an important aid to learning and talking about feelings. They teach empathy.
Here is a great guide to structuring characters driven picture books because it makes space for the character to feel, react and learn.
Spread 1: Intro character/world
Spread 2: Establish problem (worry/dilemma/misunderstanding/first experience)
Spread 3-8: Rising Action (does the character move positively towards his/her goal with each page turn or further away?)
Spread 9: Crisis moment (show immediate emotional reaction- Shock/laughter/confusion)
Spread 10: Examine feelings
Spread 11: Solve problem (new understanding put into practise)
Spread 12: Emotional resolution (answers the stories emotional problem)
Courtesy of Hodder/Hachette (with a little elaboration)
Character emotions vs. reader emotions
There is one final point I want to make about evoking emotion.
Authors don’t always want their readers emotional experience to mirror the characters. An unreliable narrator or an inexperienced, over confident or haphazard character can make the reader feel wonderfully superior and knowing. Humour also works this way. A clumsy character might trip over and fall into things with hilarious consequences. We will be laughing, but the character won’t be. It’s a very effective devise, if done well. It makes the reader feel clever, and flattery, as they say, gets you everywhere.