Emotion – The Heart of the Character

Hmmmm, bad blogger me with the weekly posts. I should be doing more. But well, I tend to slow down when I’m feeling in a low patch and have had another dip in the trail in the past couple of weeks. The journey to publication has gone way downhill, past the swamp and the garbage heap, and it’s taking a while to come back up the other side. No particular reason it went downhill, just the waiting angst. And a severe case of whats-the-pointitis.

To take my mind off the incredibly long, winding back road that is my journey to the fabulous city of publication, I have been thinking of a…checklist (for want of a better word) for things that I have to remember whenever I start a new ms. I’m not thinking of a list of boxes here, more a list of things that I commonly forget to think about whenever I sit down to write.

For the past couple of mss, I have been getting way better at character (if I do say so myself). At least the characters are coming together more organically. They’re not just a collection of traits I picked out of a hat with conflict tacked on the end, they actually feel like real people to me. Their external conflict is even reflective of their internal conflict and everything!

But there are some things that I forget to consider and one in particular is pretty damn major – a character’s emotional life. Why is it important? Well, because romance is all about emotion. And emotion is what motivates a character. Oh, they can tell themselves all kinds of things about why they do what they do, but at the very heart of it, it’s emotion that drives them.

Yes, you have your conflict but it’s the character’s emotional response to that conflict that shapes the story. For example, in Mr Rough, my hero is very, very angry. He’s conscious of his anger and he embraces it because it drives his need for justice. And from that I realised that he will not let any other emotion take the place of his anger. It’s the only emotion he will allow himself. I was very happy with that because for me if I know that anger is his reigning emotion, then everything he does will be because of it or about protecting it. It makes him consistent in other words. It also gives me a layer to his character and a simple character arc. Because in order to find love, he has to give up his anger and everything that the anger fuels (justice, control etc etc).

The thing I did NOT do however, was consider how my heroine feels about her feelings. And this gets problematic when the hero and heroine meet because of course when they do, suddenly everything becomes about the feelings. So you have to know how your character will react when confronted by an intense attraction. How do they feel about the attraction? Does it make them uncomfortable? Or does it excite them?  When they feel these things, what do they then do?

In the case of my heroine, I didn’t really know and it wasn’t until a CP mentioned her reactions seemed a little off, that I realised the problem. She was behaving inconsistently because I didn’t really know how she would react when she was uncomfortably attracted to someone. And in fact, I didn’t really know how she viewed emotion at all. It wasn’t until I sat down and figured it out that I realised that at the heart of her was anger as well. Except instead of acknowledging it like the hero, she denies it (because of her conflict). And in fact, emotional control in all things is very important to her. So her reaction to intense attraction is to ignore it, pretend she doesn’t feel it, in order to maintain her emotional control. That’s her layer. Her identity. The mask she wears. If she wants to find love, she will have to acknowledge her emotions, acknowledge her anger.

So now I know what to do when it comes to the next mss. I need to know the emotional landscape of my characters. How they view their own emotions and how they deal with them. How their conflict has changed this. Sometimes I won’t know this immediately. Sometimes you just have to sit down and write until you get a feel for the character. But at least next time it’s something I know I’ll have to keep in mind so that the characters act consistently.

What do you reckon? Do you think about this kind of stuff before you write? Or are you a get it all down first kind of writer?

9 thoughts on “Emotion – The Heart of the Character”

  1. I have a checklist of my own for starting new WIPs. It’s no where near complete, alas.

    I want to be able to gather and pre-measure the ingredients needed to bake a good story-cake. Unfortunately, I kind of only know I need flour and sugar and eggs. And the rest? I don’t know. I stumble along, trying to pick up random stuff as I go.

    I have this fantasy that one day when I have figured out all the pieces for my checklist, writing will be easy. Or EASIER… or at the very least CONSISTENT. I dunno.

    When you get your checklist squared, you post that sucker! 😀

  2. I plan and I discover along the way. I try to have an idea of conflict and how that affects their emotions/reactions. But no matter how well I think I know my characters prior to writing, they always surprise me. And that’s what makes rewriting my best friend. So definitely a bit of both! x

  3. Amalie – yay for checklists! I think it’s different depending on the writer. I think the main thing for me to think about BEFORE I start writing is character. Once I have a general idea about the characters, then I can write and find out more about them. But yeah, I think I’ll post my checklist next time. It’s still a work in progress naturally…

    Madeline – I’m with you. A bit of both is great. Sometimes no matter how hard I try and think beforehand, it doesn’t come. But usually by 3 chapters in, I have a better idea. I DO like the surprises though!

  4. This is AWESOME stuff Jackie – I have been worrying just today about the emotion in my wip, but you’ve explained this perfectly (as usual). Thanks muchly 🙂

  5. Rach – oh, thank you! I wasn’t sure if this was helpful to anyone else but me. It seemed to make sense to me but glad it also sounds at least kind of lucid to others! 🙂

  6. Jackie
    That sums up exactly where I am. I have written draft 2 of a WIP and read it through and it doesn’t work because they just aren’t reacting right. I love my characters, I love my conflict, but…its not working on the page. So I have gone back to basics and gone deeper with character sheets so that I truly know them and I am doing an arc table to work out how they get from the people they are at the start to the people they are at the end. Sadly my table may even be colour coded!

    Hang in there for the wait – fingers crossed its good news..

    Nina x

  7. What a great post-you’re like my writing therapist, lol. I so agree-and sometimes when things aren’t moving properly in the wip I notice that it’s b/c I haven’t addressed enough of the person’s past for my own benefit, and they aren’t reacting in a genuine way. Sometimes I’m so anxious to just start the story that I leave some details for me to figure out along the way. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  8. Nina – I love the colour code and the table! Hey, if it works for you, that’s the way you gotta do it. My method is so ad hoc in comparison. I just sit around and think about them. And then I scribble notes.
    Thanks re the wait. And good luck with yours! I figure the main thing about the character arc is they have to change the way they have been dealing with their emotions due to their conflict. At least that’s how I think of it. 🙂

    Victoria – lol on the writing therapist! Actually, you sound like me on wanting to start the story! I do tend to do that and not think through the details, hoping they’ll come to me. I know that now, when I’m writing and I’m puzzling about how a character would react, I need to stop. Because if I don’t know how a character would react in a certain situation, then I don’t know the character well enough. It’s irritating but at least it prevenet endless rewriting!

  9. Hiya, Jax,

    Hope you hear soon. Waiting can be a drag.

    Great post! I like your idea about the checklist. I never do them. I tend to spend weeks thinking and getting to know the characters in my next story while I’m writing whatever is current.

    Once I get to know the H/h before I write their story, they seem to unfold naturally.

    That said, sometimes they do surprise me. 🙂

    I’m looking forward to seeing your checklist, though.

    Hugs x

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