Writing With Heart: Creating the Emotionally Engaging Character

Someone recently asked me about writing with emotion.  This is really about creating the emotionally engaging character because if you don’t write emotion into your character, the reader won’t connect with that character on an emotional level.  It’s hard to explain the difference between a great story and an emotionally satisfying story because the distinction is subtle.

ID 31772681 © Iqoncept | Dreamstime.com
ID 31772681 © Iqoncept | Dreamstime.com

Write With Your Heart = Showing

Emotion-driven writing isn’t about telling your reader what your character is feeling.  Something like, “She was afraid she’d fail the test” is telling the reader what the character is feeling.  It’s also more than simple actions like gulping or trembling or crying.  Those things are all about writing at the head level.  It’s skimming the surface of the emotional journey your character is going through.

Emotion-driven writing is delving deep within the character and being right there in the moment, going through everything your character is as the character is going through it.  It’s writing at a heart level.  You don’t have to tell the reader what the character is feeling or doing.  You show it.

That’s the distinction between head writing and heart writing.  Head writing involves telling.  Heart writing involves showing.  If you can understand the difference between telling vs. showing, you will have an easier time understanding the concept of writing an emotionally engaging character.

Two Exercises To Try

The best way I can think of to explain the concept of showing is through two exercises, one that gives you a negative experience and the other a positive one.  You need to embrace both the good and bad when you are writing in your character’s point of view.  A character needs to be third-dimensional in order to effectively engage with the reader.  (Characters who are all good or all bad tend to be boring, too…at least in my opinion.)

When you are doing these exercises, write in first person.  The closer you are to these emotions, the better you can understand how to show (instead of tell) when you’re writing your story.  I encourage you to write these out as if you were writing a scene in a book.  Include dialogue.  Include actions.  Include feelings.  Pretend you are writing a play-by-play account from a time in your own life.

If (for any reason) you cannot handle doing the exercises below (esp. #1) because it’ll make things too hard on you, don’t do them.

Exercise #1:

Close your eyes and remember a time in your life when you were afraid.  Really scared.  What was happening?  What were you doing?  How were you feeling? What did the other person say or do, and how did that make you feel?  What were you thinking?  How did things progress?  Go into detail.  Don’t gloss over any of it.  You want to get so deep into the moment, you are going through it all over again.  Write down everything as it happened, and when you’re done, end it with how things ended.  Were things resolved?  Were they left unfinished? (And how do you feel about that?)

Now, take a break until you relax and feel better.  If you delved deep into this aspect of your past, you will be worked up.  This is what you should experience when your character is scared, by the way. When my characters are scared, I’m scared with them.  🙂

Exercise #2:

Close your eyes again, but this time remember a time in your life when you were happy.  This is the happiest moment of your life.  What was happening?  What were you doing?  How did your actions make you feel?  How did the actions of others around you make you feel?  What was being said and done?  Who was doing and saying what.  Explain everything in detail.  And how did it end?

~~~

I purposely ended with a good emotion because it’s easier to walk away from a good memory than it is a bad one.  But the point in the two exercises is to think of how you are writing when you are in your story.  Also, think about how your body reacted as you wrote out the two exercises?  Go ahead and write down what happened with your body.  Did you shiver?  Did you warm up?  Did you smile?  Did you frown?  Did your eyebrows furrow?  Did you grimace?  Did you wince?  Did you look behind you because you thought you heard something (this would apply to #1).  How was your heart beat changing?  Etc, etc…

Tune Into Your Body’s Cues

Go into each and every single emotion with your character.  Be on the journey with them.  Good or bad, explore all of it.  Let your body react.  If your character is mad, you will probably feel your heart rate increase and your breathing go faster.  Maybe you frown or grow tense.  If your character is embarrassed, your face should get warm.  If your character is hungry, you should get that familiar hunger pain.  If your character is excited, you should be smiling.  If your character finds something funny, you should either smile or laugh.  If your character is in love, you should have a light feeling in your chest and smile (at least little bit).

Your body reacts to emotions you feel.  When your body is reacting to what your character is feeling, you are showing. You are in the moment with your character.  You are connecting on an emotional level with your reader.  You are writing with your heart.  This is the aim of showing.

That’s the best way I can explain it.  If anyone has anything they can add to help explain the concept of showing, please do. 🙂

14 Comments

  1. Very good tips, Ruth Ann!

    1. Thank you, William!

  2. ronfritsch says:

    Once again, Ruth, an excellent post. We have to be our characters. If they suffer, so do we. If they achieve happiness, we feel and know it.

    1. Thank you. 🙂 I think one key to all this is passion for the story. If we’re passionate about what we’re writing, it’s easier to be engaged with the characters.

  3. Very nice tips, Ruth. I wrote about this on my own blog not too long ago, and I like your suggestions and those exercises. I’d like to add that if you are still having trouble showing characters as emotional, perhaps you can go and look at your favorite books where you really bonded with the characters, see what the author did there and maybe try to work that into your own style. It could work.

    1. I love the idea of referring to favorite books and analyzing the author’s style and the characters. That’s a great way to delve more into the emotionally engaging character idea.

  4. Those exercises are great ways to understand how to express your characters’ feelings. Awesome post!

    1. Thank you! I hope they work for people. It took me years to learn to get into the character’s mind to the point where I felt everything they were going through.

  5. Thank you for some wonderful inspiration!

    1. You’re welcome, and thank you for the lovely comment. 🙂

  6. josois says:

    Reblogged this on Writer's Nook and commented:
    It’s always been my aim to make readers care about my characters as if they’re real people with real hopes and fears and this post brings that vision to greater clarity. I think writers out there including myself can take away from the concrete ways presented here to make our characters more emotionally engaging.

  7. theryanlanz says:

    This is a wonderful article about character emotions. Do you mind if I feature this on my blog, A Writer’s Path (6,100 subscribers)? I usually have on guest posts from various authors 1-2 times a week. I would, of course, announce credit to you and include a link where my readers can find your blog and check out your other articles. Before I even considered, I wanted to ask you first.

    -Ryan
    http://www.RyanLanz.com

    1. I would be honored, Ryan. I love your blog. 🙂 Thank you for considering this post.

      1. theryanlanz says:

        Sounds good. I’ll drop you a line when its turn comes up in the queue. Thanks. : )

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