Pounding hearts, sweaty palms and cold chills might be common symptoms of intense emotions, but that doesn't mean they're always the best choice for conveying a character's feelings in fiction. Writing for emotional impact is as much about describing a character's circumstances and reactions as it is about physical responses to fear and sadness. Considering your character's past experiences and current attitude can help you capture his emotions in a unique, original way.
Do More With Less
Downplaying a character's feelings can often be more powerful than giving extended descriptions of his emotional response. Too much mention of emotion can feel manipulative to readers, telling them how they should be feeling, rather than allowing their response to naturally arise from the character's situation. If you're writing a story about a mother who comes home to find that her child has been kidnapped, the scene will be less powerful if you use words like "shocked," "stunned" and "saddened" than if you never mention her specific feelings. Instead, you might describe the house's disarray after the kidnapping and zero in on a specific detail, like the child's favorite toys scattered around the floor.
Make Use of Flashbacks
To add depth to your character's feelings, try taking your readers back in time to experience a specific, emotional memory. The flashback doesn't have to be a lengthy scene to get your readers to identify with the character. Often, a quick glimpse of one important detail can pack just as much of a punch. In the moment that the mother discovers her child is gone, for instance, she might suddenly recall his smile while playing with a dog at the park. Similarly, you might try having the character's mind flash forward to the future. For example, the mother might begin to imagine how she's going to tell her husband their child is gone, increasing her anxiety.
Get Inside the Character's Head
Feelings can often affect the way a character sees his environment. To create the character's emotional state for readers, put the audience inside that character's head by filtering the details through his point of view. Let the reader experience the story world through the character's eyes to create stronger identification between that character and the readers. For example, in the aftermath of the kidnapping, the mother might think about the gray sky of the fall day outside instead of saying how delighted she is by the colorful autumn leaves on the trees. Carefully craft your descriptions so they reflect the mindset of the character.
Find Fresh Approaches to Feelings
Knowing how your character would respond to a situation can make the difference between a lifelike character and a wooden one. Avoid cliche responses to emotion as you describe his feelings; instead, search for feelings that rise from his personality and background. It's easy to describe the mother of the kidnapped child as sweating profusely, with tears streaming down her cheeks. It's more powerful, however, to have her respond with cold, self-directed anger for allowing this to happen, in her words, internal thoughts and actions. Sketch out your characters' primary traits before you begin writing to help you craft unique approaches to emotion.
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