Expressing Characters’ Emotions on the Worst (and Second-Worst, and Third-Worst . . .) Day of Their Lives
It’s a widely accepted truth that if stage actors, viewed from lofty balcony seats and way-back stadium seating alike, are to adequately project emotion, there’s gotta be a little exaggeration. Sometimes a lot. While the acting may never reach the highs (er, lows?) of soap operas or, say, the early days of Bonanza (ten points to anyone who knows the specific scenery-chewing I mean here), it does have to be pointed and often quite physical for the content to be properly expressed in the given context.
A truth perhaps less widely known: with fiction, particularly the literary variety, it’s nearly the opposite. If you’re going to express your character’s emotions in a way that comes across as relatable and real, a little understatement can go a long way.
Characters in Trees
Many writers are familiar with Vladimir Nabokov’s sage words on story development: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” A sound summary. Because as another wise someone said (this may have been another writer, or maybe it was just my eleventh grade AP English teacher), “I don’t want to read about the second worst day of your character’s life.”
We like to read about characters going through the worst of the worst, don’t we?
(Fortunately, for at least the vast majority of us, that doesn’t seem to owe to our status as raving sadists. It comes from that same good kernel that makes us happy-sigh at memes outlining how Abraham Lincoln failed and lost it all and had a nervous breakdown and then became president. Triumph, baby.)
So we’re quite often reading about characters toughing it out through heart-wrenching lows. And, hell, if we were thrust into circumstances as stressful as the ones some of our favorite tragic characters face, maybe we’d cry, scream, punch holes in the wall, etc., etc. Thing is, a good story has to really show who a character is beyond how she reacts to the worst day/s of her life.
The Understated Character
Writing a story about dire circumstances can present an enormous challenge as you attempt to find the line between accurately portraying exactly how upset, frustrated, hysterical, confused, angry, etc., people would be if these things really happened and writing characters that readers can relate to, whose reactions readers won’t tire of, and who won’t come across as overly emotional or (in the case of a character who’s frequently shown getting frustrated and/or angry) straight-up mean.
It could be helpful to keep in mind that readers have such limited getting-to-know-your-characters space, even in a story of multiple meaty chapters, that in most cases they automatically interpret all actions and words presented as strong evidence of who the characters are. And while it’s true that readers can account for circumstances (thinking, Well, of course James is upset—he’s probably remembering that time his Siamese twin friends were operated on and bled to death and he didn’t feel a thing about it back then so now he’s feeling it like he’d feel an anvil and ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod*), they’re balancing their own imaginative comprehension of the story’s circumstances against a different sort of context—one that’s based more on quantity.
* This James would be James Dyer, the brilliant physician born incapable of experiencing either pain or pleasure but magicked into experiencing both later in life, from Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain.
Readers have only x number of interactions to get acquainted with your characters. If, in many of those interactions, one character is crying and screaming and another’s lashing out verbally or even physically, readers are likely to be left with impressions of, respectively, a character who’s primarily upsettable and another who’s primarily angry. Which is fine if yours is intentionally the tale of a spaz and a hothead but less fine if you intend them to seem like balanced creatures reacting realistically to bad stuff.
Even if you start your story in “peace time” before launching into out-and-out war—when characters are in stressful circumstances for the majority of a story, their “war time” appearances need to keep establishing who they are as independent characters.
In writing a lengthy story, you probably have one or two good shots to show your character wigging the freak out before the picture you’re painting becomes that of an emotional safety hazard. So if you know you’ll need to incorporate a meltdown, maybe two, prepare by understating the character’s other reactions.
This doesn’t mean you have to make the character do out-of-character stuff or react with either sunny vibes or apathy when lesser bads occur. Perhaps the understated tone in bad but not tragic moments has to come from your writing style rather than your characters.
Have a character for whom it’s characteristic to get super-de-duper sentimental? Want to show him accurately without wearing thin your readers’ sympathy or making him appear to cross the line from endearingly emotional to a basket case in serious need of volume control?
The task is simple enough to manage when you look at your own writing style in these moments. If you want the real meltdown moment to pack a wallop, make sure that your writing in that scene molds to the character’s inner experience. Nervous-breakdown writing can be fast. Staccato. Repetitive on p sounds to portray a pounding pulse.
Full of brief paragraphs.
Crammed together so it feels like things are crazily crammed together and stacked on top of each other and teetering crazily on the verse of collapse. Loud! And if you’re Tom-Wolfe bold in your style LOUD LOUD LOUD LOUD LOUD.
Bad-day writing? Probably not so much. When your character gets weepy after one of those breakups that chips but doesn’t break the heart, or simply gets washed over with the feels after a Hallmark movie, you can present as much in your same-old smooth writing flow. No exclamation points smashed sardine-like in dialogue. No writing in the cadence of a blender set to “mince.”
Because all things said and done, the more often your writing flair seems inflamed, panicky, hysterical, the less effective that amplified style will be when your character truly hits the wall and is counting on you for some context-appropriate expression.
Picture attribution: By Alexander Frank Lydon (A. F. Lydon) (1836-1917) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons