One thing I often find lacking on writing panels and at critique meetings is the discussion between writing emotion and writing characterization, as they are two very different things that are most often confused for being the same thing by new writers. Today's blogpost is a tiny, TINY (your hopes as well as mine) little lesson broken up into three sections on the differences and how you can bridge them together. Let's dig in!
Building Character: Handling Emotion and Characterization
So let's take this in three bits. I've prepared three chunks of fiction to better illustrate my conception of the differences between Emotion and Characterization. The first chunk (1A for short) is written with the Emotion of Panic.
"Where is it?" Solm asked.
Twilly looked up at him as they exited the dungeon. "What?"
"Where's the bag, Twilly?"
The small thief checked his wide-leather belt. Weighed in pouches galore and girded with a simple steel dagger, no bag of gems swung as he moved forward. Twilly stopped dead in his tracks. "Oh no!"
Solm threw his hands in the air. "I can't believe you left it inside! We'll have go back and get it!"
In 1A we are introduced to two character leaving a dungeon, Twilly and Solm, who just successfully robbed the underground vault of a bag that contains some sort of treasure that both of them value. However, it is soon revealed that Twilly left the bag inside by mistake, which results in Panic, which is the emotion I was going for. The problem with 1A is that the emotion tells us little about the characters in terms of who they are--we can conclude they are thieves that go into dungeons to get treasures, Twilly wears a belt, and he is forgetful. Solm is given absolutely no description, becoming a "ghost voice" (we don't know where the character is in relation to the point of view character, and even that is murky due to my poorly done Third Omniscient where the POV is not "stapled.") And notice the movements made--simple and disembodied.
So let's try something different in 2A. I'm going to add a bit of narrative meat to Solm by "stapling" my POV to Twilly, as well as giving our two characters actual human movements that I think are more life-like in the real world (which is subjective). I'll also remove an exclamation point because exclamation points are often misused and lazy. I'm also going to add two new layers of emotion born out of my own experiences with Panic: Frustration and Anger.
"Where is it?" Solm asked, towering over him.
Twilly froze every time the giant spoke, and emotionally shot from the rigors of the hellish dungeon they were exiting, the question halted him. "What?"
"Where's the bag, Twilly?"
In the shadow of his partner in crime, Twilly checked his wide belt. Weighed in pouches filled in both tricks and treachery, he thumbed the hilt of his simple steel dagger. The frog next to it should have had the bag of gems affixed. He sighed deeply. "Oh no."
Solm exploded, throwing his hammer fists at the sky. "I can't believe you left it inside! We'll have to go back and get it!"
What changed in 2A?
I provided space between the characters. Solm can almost been seen lumbering over Twilly as they leave what has been a tough dungeon for Twilly (who I made the clear POV character.) I also add some nuance to our POV character. When asked a question by a partner he might honestly fear, he thumbs the hilt of his dagger. What does that say about Twilly? Will he fight for himself if they come to blows? Is it a coping behavior? I also did not have him express only panic, but frustration over the loss of the bag of gems, a small detail which gives our story a McGuffin. Now having established Solm's size, his reaction of throwing fists to the clouds turns simple panic into booming anger, which is further magnified by his size.
It is at this point that I need to stop and talk about Emotions. They are the ribbon that tie characters together, but often emotion is concretely established through movement and space. Movement gives blood and sinew to characters as much as space gives weight and contrast. That blood and sinew translates into the emotion being multifaceted while that weight and contrast helps you tell a larger story. Both partners are panicking because they lost the McGuffin, but look at what movement and space do to panic: So exhausted from the dungeon, all Twilly can do is stand still, small in the shadow of his giant who threatens when he speaks, and sigh. Solm, in Twilly's perspective, reacts to panic with brutish anger, throwing his fists at the heavens. Their movements, added to the emotion, provides Characterization. We want to see how characters/people react under stress in stories. The stress they carry against the plot is the foundation of what readers want to see worked out in resolving the epic I aim to tell involving this classic odd-couple scenario.
So to point it in the simplest terms possible: Emotion is a part of Characterization, not Characterization itself.
A lot of submissions that come across Falstaff's editorial desks often feature a lot of 1A writing instead of 2A writing. Publishers want 2A because 2A can be refined into something better (let's call it "publishable"), while 1A is amateurish.
The reason why 2A works so well, however, will reveal itself in 3A, which features the benefit of a rewriting the dialogue. Words from the characters should always reveal character as much as their movements and space.
Let's keep things how they were: same paragraph structure, sentences, but this time we're going to change the dialogue and remove all the exclamation points, which aren't needed if you know what you're doing. Dialogue is a key part of great characterization, because changing what is said by the characters can completely redefine them. For example:
"Do you have them?" Solm asked, towering over his shoulder.
Twilly froze every time the giant spoke, and emotionally shot from the rigors of the hellish dungeon they were leaving, the sudden question halted him. "What?"
"Did you have that bag of gems, Twilly?"
In the shadow of his partner in crime, Twilly checked his wide belt. Weighed in pouches filled in both tricks and treachery, he thumbed the hilt of his simple steel dagger. The frog next to it should have the bag of gems affixed to it. He sighed deeply. "Nope."
Solm exploded, throwing his hammer fists at the sky. "I can't believe... ugh, we'll have to go back inside."
Here I completely made Panic malleable into multi-faced characterizations, and it all came because I changed the dialogue and made them new characters.
Twilly is still our POV, but he is presented in more grey terms. He doesn't seem small anymore next to the still-gigantic Solm, who speaks in a more collegiate tone, upfront and to the point. His words are markedly more concerned, expressing keen focus on a McGuffin he and Twilly clearly wanted to take from the dungeon they endured.
Twilly has gone through a subtle but telling change as well--now that Solm is not a threatening giant, Twilly checking his dagger with his thumb might make us wonder about Twilly intent. Is he the kind of thief that would stab Solm in the back, using the tricks and treachery lined on his belt? But there is another turn because of the change in dialogue--the same words and movements were used, but instead of a downtrodden panic of "Oh no", Twilly simply says "Nope", admitting openly their failure. Is he aloof? An asshole? Has this happened before? The entire way that character responds to panic after a hellish dungeon is dulled to a fine point--what did they just walk out of?
Back to Solm--where the giant once thrust his fists to the sky, shouting about his obvious Anger, I clipped it with the ellipses and turn it into Resolution by Solm, casting him as the move active character in the paragraph, who meets Anger with a quick burst he forces down before he resolves what they will do next. Is he still the murderous giant dwarfing the helpless thief we saw in 2A?
Writing emotion is easy, but showing your characters handle them for themselves is what makes storytelling rich. The mastery of it, which I am in no way claiming, takes time and effort to create for oneself, but it can be done by considering different methods. Perhaps the one I present above may work for you--perhaps it won't. Either way I hope something is gained from this. Feel free to ask questions below or make comments!