Once upon a time, I had a great deal of trouble writing Emotions. Luckily, I found a writer friend who was very skilled in doing just that. After months of begging, she wrote me this tutorial on how to evoke the Darker Emotions in Fiction.
Writing Realistic Emotions in Fiction
The Dark Side
by Kita the Spaz
Posted With Permission
When writing fiction (or for that matter, non-fiction) emotions carry the story. But if they come across as too flat or two-dimensional to the reader, the tale you are trying to tell loses something in the translation.
How many of you have read something that just flat-out tells how things go, without keeping your interest or the characters holding your sympathy, pity, or in some cases, loathing?
When a story reads like that, you’re just as likely to put the book down, or navigate away from the page, and not pick it up again.
When expressing an emotion, it is necessary to take into account the whole package.
Don’t just say:
Jason was furious, even while she apologized.
That tells the reader almost nothing about what Jason is feeling right now. Strong emotions have physical presence too. If you are angry, your heartbeat speeds and there are other purely physical reactions.
Better to say:
Jason was furious. His skin prickled with the heat of his anger and his hands clenched into fists so tight his joints ached. His heartbeat throbbed in his ears with a dull roar that muted her apologetic words.
You see? With that description, the reader feels what Jason is going through. It makes for a more exciting read that way, and offers an in into the reactions and feelings of the character. As a writer, you have to take into account the physical presence of emotions.
I’m going to take you on a quick tour of several emotions, and the physical reactions that go with them. How they feel, how your body reacts, hell, even how they taste, sometimes.
We’ll start with the one used in our example.
The Encarta Dictionary gives the definition of anger as:
An*ger (noun) (1) Displeasure. A strong feeling of grievance and displeasure. (2) (verb) To become or make greatly annoyed.
Somehow, that doesn’t even really begin to cover it. From mild annoyance to full fledged rage, anger is a very powerful emotion. It can fuel a revolution, or push someone past the breaking point.
It’s often said that you are so angry that ‘you can’t see straight.’ There’s some truth to that.
As your anger builds your heart beats faster, providing for the thundering of your heart and the stinging, tingling sensation under your skin as blood is forced through capillaries by your accelerated heartbeat. Blood rushes to the brain, causing a distortion in perception. This also occurs around the eyes, swelling the tiny capillaries in the eyelids, causing you to ‘see red’ as the saying goes. A headache is also common when that angry, caused by the stress of the moment and the increased blood flow. Often you want to hit something, so your arm muscles will bunch, adding to the feel of tension in your limbs.
All in all, a very clinical and dry description of a powerhouse of emotion, isn’t it?
Don’t be too clinical with your descriptions, though. Rather than describing the muscles bunching and the prickling of blood vessels, describe it in a way you feel it.
Jason turned away from her apology, trying to relax fingers that had been so tightly curled they throbbed. His shoulders were tight, tension radiating across and down his back. His skin felt hot as he gulped air in a desperate attempt to calm himself.
Unfortunately, anger can all too easily lead one of the darkest of human emotions—Hate.
Encarta gives the definition for hate as:
Hate (noun) (1) a feeling of intense hostility toward somebody or something. (2) (verb) to dislike someone or something intensely, often in a way that evokes feelings of anger, hostility, or animosity.
A rather tame way to describe it, don’t you think?
Hate is possibly the most telling of all emotions. Hate can make a good man do the most evil, gruesome things and turn love sour as vinegar. Hate can blind you more than anger, more than fear. It can push you to do things you would never do in your own darkest imaginings Hate revels in it, and for a moment, you do too. In such intense emotion there is a freedom that is addictive, sweet and as deadly as poison.
Something in him snapped as he saw him there, laughing amid the Mardi Gras crowd. Laughing, mocking the pain that burned in every breath he took, in every pulse of his heart. The world narrowed everything but him and that monster fading into a red haze. He wasn’t aware of his feet pounding the cobblestone pavement or the frightened shrieks as people dove out of his way. All he could hear was the harsh rasp of his own breathing and the derisive laughter of the bastard who had stolen his whole world with a few careless words.The bottle in his hand smashed against a post as he ran, beer foaming and glass shards flying. The sting of glass splinters cutting his face only served to make the black fury welling up from deep inside him stronger and more lethal. For a second, he saw those hateful, laughing eyes cloud with realization and then terror. The dark heart of him laughed gleefully as his arm plunged forward, burying the remains of the beer bottle in warm flesh. Up under the sternum, reveling in the feel of blood spilling hot over his hand and the fading horror in those damned mocking eyes as his life drained away.
And often, when hate goes, what remains is despair and emptiness.
Encarta gives the definition for despair as:
De*spair (noun) A profound feeling that there is no hope.
Again, a dim view through clouded glass at what the emotion really entails.
Despair is that feeling that nothing can ever be right again, that nothing that you knew would ever be the way is was before. It’s an aching void in the pit of your stomach that nothing can fill, not food nor drink. Despair is desolation worse than anything you might have ever felt before.
I’m going to continue with our pervious example, the man who just murdered another in the midst of a Mardi Gras celebration.
He felt his knees hit the cobblestones, but distantly. He was still trapped in those dying eyes and all the rage bled from him, like the blood pouring from the belly of the man in front of him. He saw his own hands covered in blood and his stomach gave a weak lurch, but he felt it only vaguely. The world seemed trapped in amber, a slow-motion reel that didn’t make sense.
He had killed a man. He had done something unforgivable, something that had shattered everything even more than those careless words that had ripped his own world away. He didn’t even struggle as he was hauled to his feet by ungentle hands, because nothing mattered anymore. Not one damned thing. He could only laugh weakly as he stared at his own bloodstained hands.
That leads us neatly into our next emotion, a brother to despair, Remorse.
Encarta gives the definition for remorse as:
Re*morse (noun) a strong feeling of guilt and regret.
That’s not actually a bad definition, but let’s dig a little deeper.
Remorse is regret, yes, to put it in the very simplest of terms. It's that moment when you know, deep down inside, that if you had done something just the slightest bit different; things wouldn't have turned out the way they did.
It feels like a weight on your chest, crushing your ribs until they bend and creak and you can barely breathe. It's almost a physical pain, because deep down, you know that you could have changed it. Knowing that you had the power in your grasp to make thing come out differently, and you didn't use it.
He stood there for a moment, numb and shaken, thinking that if he had just stretched out a hand; just said one word, that this would not have happened. His breath came short and his eyes stung and burned with the tears he could not shed in public. The pitiful body on the pavement, like a puppet with its strings cut, blood pooling under tangled limbs, was a wordless accusation. If he had just been able to reach him, the teenager would not be lying there, broken beyond all repair. His fingers trembled as if to reach out, to bridge that gap that was now insurmountable. All it would have taken was one word, one single word in the right place and this could have been avoided.
And remorse brings us around to Guilt.
Encarta gives the definition for guilt as:
Guilt (noun) An awareness of having done wrong or committed a crime, accompanied by feelings of shame and regret.
One of Encarta’s better definitions, actually.
Most everyone has felt guilty at one time or another, even if it’s just a lingering guilt for forgetting a date. But guilt has the potential to be a crushing weight. Like remorse, it can make it hard to even breathe because you know that what happened is something you did. You didn't react fast enough, didn't see it coming, but know that you should have.
Hindsight's twenty-twenty, but in the heat of the moment, you're blind. You always think that if you could have been just a little bit faster, a little bit smarter, you could have seen it coming. Whether it was screaming angrily at someone, just before they walked out the door and into a fatal situation or it was a simple as knowing that you are to blame for the anger that clouded their vision, guilt is the heaviest of burdens to bear.
It can weigh on you more heavily than anything else. It never goes away. They can tell you again and again, that it wasn't your fault that there was nothing you could have done. But you won't believe them, because you know that if you had just been understanding, that it wouldn't have happened, that they would have seen the other car run the red light or the truck as they stepped onto the crosswalk.
As he knelt beside the simple stone the lilies in his hand weighed more than they had any right to. He reached out with shaking fingers to trace the sculpted letters of his lover’s name, feeling the edges that time had not yet blunted. Silently, he whispered a prayer to whatever gods might be listening.
His small group of friend had told him time and again that he was killing himself over something that wasn’t his doing -- that he wasn’t to blame for what one moment of inattention had brought, but he knew better.
It was eating at him like a canker; slowly sapping away his health and strength, but he couldn’t find it in him to care. He could only hope that when he finally succumbed to the cancerous guilt wearing him away bit by bit, that his lover would forgive him.
Next up is Envy and her evil twin, Jealousy.
Encarta gives the definition for envy as:
En*vy (noun) (1) The resentful or unhappy feeling of wanting somebody else’s success, good fortune, qualities or possessions. (2) (verb) to desire something possessed by someone else.
A better description, but still, barely half the story.
All of us have probably envied someone at some point in our lives, be it a movie star or that kid in homeroom who always seemed to get straight A’s without even studying. You know what I mean.
You can study all day and still only make B’s and they make it look effortless. It lodges in the back of your throat like a hard little stone, and you want to yell out, “I’m better than you, so how can you make it look so easy?”
They have the acclaim that you want. You crave it, and need it with a passion that can border on obsession. They say envy leaves a bitter taste, and that’s not far from the truth. It’s like a bad hangover or acid reflux, bile searing the lining of your throat until you want to scream to be rid of it.
Envy burned in the back of his throat as he watched Rick glide across the floor with a grace he had once possessed, charming everyone with a smile. William looked down at his frail legs under the blanket that hid them and wished, not for the first time, that he’d never gotten into that car. His heart felt like it had climbed up into the back of his mouth and frozen there, a hard lump that made it difficult to even breathe. He felt sick when he caught himself thinking that it should have been Rick in the car that night.
Encarta gives the definition for jealousy as:
Jeal*ous-ee; ‘the act of being jealous’.
~smirks~ Not very helpful there, were they, so we’ll go back to the root word jealous.
Jeal*ous (adjective) (1) envious; feeling bitter and unhappy because of another's advantages, possessions, or luck (2) suspicious of rivals; feeling suspicious about a rival's or competitor's influence, especially in regard to a loved one.
See? I told you envy and jealousy were evil twins.
Jealousy is only a short step away from envy and sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart. Where envy is focused more on what the person has, jealousy is more about the person. You are jealous of the person, rather than what they have. Yes, you want what they have, but in here, the emotions are more focused on them.
It’s a greedy emotion, swallowing up rational thinking in a haze of ‘how can they have that (or him, or her) while I have nothing?’
Envy breeds jealousy and in its wake you are left in a morass of guilt and the horrible feeling that you have touched something unpleasant, and you will never get the stink off of you.
William watched Rick accept Marie’s hand and the two of them twirl out to the center of the dance floor, graceful as a pair of swans on the water. So, Rick had not only taken what he had, but the woman he loved also. He paled and the heart in his throat dropped down to the bottom of his stomach with a thud as he realized that he wanted nothing more than to take from Rick all he had. His skin crawled and he felt slimy. When had he become such a monster?
Dark emotions in their own right and in a way as powerful as anger and hate, but jealousy and envy are slyer. They creep in around your defenses and thrive in all the dark places of a human heart. And even when you think you have banished them, they are still lingering in the shadows of your psyche, just waiting for the chance to sink greedy claws into your heart, and breed more hatred.
Scary, isn’t it? So let’s talk Fear.
Encarta gives the definition for fear as:
Fear (noun) (1) feeling of anxiety-an unpleasant feeling of anxiety or apprehension caused by the presence or anticipation of danger (2) Frightening thought; an idea, thought, or other entity that causes feelings of fear.
There are many levels and degrees of fear though, so let’s take a look at some of them.
There’s the guilty, giddy sort of fear triggered by a horror movie or a carnival haunted house. The same kind of fear you get staying out too late, knowing you will be in trouble when you get home. It’s the sort of fear that leaves you laughing when the so-called danger has passed.
In other words, once the thrill ride is over or the credits start to roll.
At that moment, it was scary, but when it’s gone, so is the fear, leaving you breathless and exhilarated.
Tim and Corie tumbled out the doors of the haunted mansion, breathless and unable to stop laughing. They leaned against each other for support, legs trembling.
All creatures have a fight or flight response to fear. It triggers a burst of adrenaline and endorphins, the better to run away or fight for your life with. That’s what leaves you giddy and laughing in a situation like that, where the reaction has no outlet.
Real fear, such as; fear for your life, is a bit different.
When you are well and truly scared, your heart pounds and you feel almost dizzy with the fear and adrenalin pouring through your blood. That’s your body’s way of telling you, ‘This is dangerous. Get away.’ It makes your breath catch in your throat and your muscles tremble with the need to run or fight back. Your palms sweat and the small hairs on your body stand up. It’s a very visceral emotion, one of the most primitive and thus one of the most dangerous.
A frightened man can be pushed beyond the extremes of body and strength; can do what no other emotion can push him to.
Often when you are that scared, the higher, thinking portion of your brain shuts down and the world around you can only be glimpsed in a disjointed series of images; some clear as glass and others blurred out of recognition.
He could see them all around him, dark figures with no distinguishable faces, only the bright gleam of moonlight on metal. His skin crawled at the sight of so many weapons and there was a bitter coppery taste flooding his mouth. The leader grinned, a flash of bone-white against a dark shadow and suddenly they were on him. Terror spiked through him like the first sting of steel tearing through the flesh of his arm.The fight degenerated into a disorganized jumble of images, only one, or two standing out with stark clarity. His blood roared in his ears, only pierced when someone screamed, the thin, high shriek of a dying rabbit. Suddenly, he saw an opening and snatching at his friend’s wrist, he bulled for it, blind to the bright agony of the weapons lashing out and biting into his flesh.
There’s another sort of fear too, the fear of being alone.
Encarta gives the definition for loneliness as:
Lone*li*ness (noun) as without companionship or support from other people, feeling sad and isolated.
It's being isolated from things emotionally, too.
You've heard the phrase "alone in a crowded room"? It’s a mix of frustration, need, and anger with a liberal helping of sadness thrown in for good measure. You don’t want to be alone, you don’t want to be detached from everyone else, but you are.
It's easy to be alone in a crowded room when you are disconnected from the crowd swirling and crashing around you, like waves around a pillar of stone.
Leon felt like he was trapped in a glass case; able to see and hear, but not able to touch. He stood at the edges of the crowd, adrift on a wash of voices babbling in so many languages that it made no more sense than the shush of waves. The few things he could understand only served to make him feel more isolated. He wanted to be part of the conversations eddying out there, but he was as out of place as a fish on dry land.
All of these emotions are the darker side, but they give you a good handle on how to use emotions in fiction. Don’t just describe the character as angry. Use the feelings and bodily reactions to draw the reader in; to make them so caught up in the way the character feels that they are hopelessly entranced in the story.
An emotion is a physical presence in a good story, as much a character as the main character and as necessary as a good plot.
Kita the Spaz
-- Written by request from Morgan Hawke