September 30, 2014

Why No Advice Is Perfect: Character Emotions

View of sun through broken window with text: Why No Advice Is Perfect

Last week, we discussed how we can balance the right amount of emotion for our stories. But as I pointed out, there’s no rule for how much emotion to portray or how to include it, especially not a rule that applies to every story.

In fact, there’s never going to be a “one size fits all” guideline for any aspect of writing. Every story is different, so some advice doesn’t apply to us. What’s right for one genre might not be right for another genre. Ditto for the point of view of the story. Or the characters. Or the plot.

Let’s stick with emotions in storytelling for an example of how we have to weigh advice against the specifics of our story. Reader expectations for emotional content vary widely by genre.

I write romance, so my genre expects strong emotions. The whole point of the story is for readers to experience the emotions of love, romance, devotion, forgiveness, or passion along with the characters while they journey toward a happy ending. But even with that emphasis, it’s possible to go overboard with melodrama or purple prose, such as using flowery language to include sex scenes without the explicit words.

In contrast, a noir detective story won’t include as many references to emotion. Part of the point of the story might even be how calm and collected (i.e., unemotional) the protagonist is despite the challenges they face. These authors would keep emotional references to a minimum.

That means for many authors, the common writing advice about characters and emotions won’t work. So let’s take a closer look at the different expectations of readers and how that might affect which pieces of writing advice we take—and which we ignore. *smile*

Elements That Can Affect Expectations for Emotional Content

As I alluded to above, some of the aspects of our story that can affect reader expectations of emotional content are:

  • Genre
  • Point of view
  • Characters
  • Plot/premise

The key is knowing what our readership expects.

Genre Expectations:

Last time, Carradee commented:

“Hard sci-fi, for instance, tends to be more about the underlying ideas and what the characters do than how they’re feeeeeeeling. In that situation—and dependent on the overall style and point of the scene or story—summarizing “He was furious” might very well be better than even “He ground his teeth in fury.”

I agree completely. The target audiences of different genres have different expectations, and in some genres, exploring the characters’ feelings would work against their characterization and leave readers disappointed (or nauseated *smile*).

Point of View Expectations:

The typical modern story—and what most writing advice targets—is written in a deeper point of view (POV) than stories written in the past. That emphasis on depth creates a need for an emotional journey. We know all the emotions we feel in a day, so it doesn’t feel realistic to be deep inside a character and not be privy to those emotions. Deep POV that’s unemotional feels flat.

However, those who write omniscient or a shallow (POV) can feel left out from those writing tips. In omniscient or a distant third person POV, it can feel more natural and consistent with the mood or tone to share emotional information in narrative style (“She was angry”) than with body language (“She balled her fists”).

Character Expectations:

Characters in some stories simply are unemotional or less emotionally expressive or aware. Or maybe they deny their emotions more than usual (and the story might not be about them learning to get in touch with their feelings).

Likewise, some characters don’t have an emotional arc. They don’t “end up” in a different place—psychologically—from where they started. The story isn’t about their emotional journey, but about the plot or the premise.

Again, although this “flat arc” style is different from most of the writing advice out there for modern storytelling, this technique is not wrong. Many successful series are written in this episodic format, where events of previous books don’t affect later books much (if at all).

Plot and Premise Expectations:

Related to the issue of flat character arcs, sometimes the point of the story is the plot—or the premise, like in the idea-heavy science fiction stories that Carradee mentioned—rather than what the character goes through. There’s no right or wrong, as the important aspect is connecting with the target readership.

Some readers read for the plot or premise, and they’re perfectly happy with low-emotion characters. Emotional exploration would, in fact, distract from the plot and change the tone or mood of the story.

So What Keeps Those Readerships Engaged?

I mentioned last time that: “Storytelling and keeping readers’ interest often comes down to creating emotions in our readers.” When we look at less emotional stories, it would be easy to think that those readers must be reading for a different reason—a reason unrelated to emotions.

After all, the characters aren’t emotional, they aren’t going through an emotional arc, and they might even seem to be afterthoughts. Or maybe the writing is from a distant point of view, so readers don’t feel as connected to the characters’ experiences. Or maybe the plot or premise is so compelling that readers don’t care about the other elements.

But that word, compelling, tells us that the reader is experiencing emotions. It’s just that those emotions aren’t driven by the characters’ emotional journey. Readers are still curious enough to need to know how things turn out, inspired by the characters’ competence, eager to experience the future portrayed, horrified by the possibility of the plot playing out in real life, etc.

So when we write stories that aren’t about the characters’ emotional journey, we still want to identify what emotions we want readers to experience. But rather than evoking those emotions through the characters and their emotions, we’ll use narration, descriptions, dialogue, etc. that enhance the text or subtext, which then empowers those emotions.

Either way, readers are connecting to the story through their emotions. In character-focused stories, the characters act as proxies for evoking those reader emotions. In plot-focused stories, the other elements of the stories step up to drive reader emotions.

A Closer Look: Creating Emotions in Plot-Driven Stories

As I mentioned, some stories (and some whole genres—such as thriller or mystery series that feature a main character who doesn’t change from book to book) don’t include any character-based emotional arcs for readers to relate to. In those cases, readers are more likely to experience plot-related emotions, such as curiosity or dread about how the character can solve this situation.

In character-focused stories, readers root for characters to change themselves by correcting their false belief. In plot-focused stories, readers root for the characters to change the world around them by overcoming the plot obstacles . Either way, readers are emotionally invested enough to root for an outcome.

Many times in these flat character arc stories, readers will also experience emotions that are about the character (rather than feeling what the character feels). For example, readers might feel admiration or respect for a highly skilled character along the lines of James Bond or Jack Reacher. Familiarity can then turn those feelings into concern and worry when things don’t go the character’s way.

(Note: K.M. Weiland has an excellent three-part series on how to structure flat-character-arc stories: Act OneAct Two, and Act Three.)

In other words, even with plot-driven stories, we create emotions in readers by writing compelling characters in a compelling plot and/or world. The difference lies in the “flavor” of how readers internalize the emotions, perhaps similar to the difference between sympathy and empathy. So even if we’re writing flat-arc stories, plot-driven stories, distant POV stories, etc., we still want to think about how we can encourage readers to connect emotionally with our story.

These differences are a great example of why we have to filter all writing advice through the specifics of our situation or story, and there’s no end to the examples we can come up with. Some writing mentors talk about how our antagonist is the end-all-be-all of our story, and in some genres, that’s true. But in other genres, readers don’t care as much about the antagonist. We can’t follow every piece of advice out there without endangering our story.

Regardless of the specifics of our story, our job remains the same, and only the techniques change. No matter what, we still want readers to connect to our story. We still want readers to be compelled to turn the pages. *smiles*

Can you think of other aspects that affect reader expectations for emotional content? Do you have any stories that fall into the less-character-emotion-driven categories? Do you think readers still emotionally connect to the story through other techniques? If you enjoy stories like that, what makes you want to read them? Can you think of other common writing tips that don’t apply to all genres or stories?

(On an unrelated note, my brother was recently diagnosed with a (non-cancerous) brain tumor, and he’s scheduled for brain surgery tomorrow. Due to the size of the tumor, they’re expecting this to be a very long and complicated surgery, but if everything goes well, he has an excellent chance of recovery. Prayers, good wishes, or healing thoughts are appreciated for him and his family. Thank you!)

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Comments — What do you think?

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I disagree that deep PoV —> reader sharing the character emotions. There are more factors involved than that, and I find that really deep PoV —> reader responding to the character emotions.

In fact, I use really deep PoV in first person when I don’t want the reader to feel what the narrator’s feeling. When I do, I use third person, and I don’t go as deep.

Perhaps it’s how I write them, but I find that first person —> sympathy; third person —> empathy.

I’d say every piece of writing advice has its limits. Even proper grammar has its points when a writer can ignore it.

(And I’ll be praying for your brother! I had an ultimately non-cancerous scare at one point, myself, so I know full well how that feels. Mine wasn’t in the brain, though, which brings a whole new type of scary. Have an *e-hug*, and another to share with your brother. 🙂 )

R. A. Meenan

Excellent post. It’s making me think about the opening to my book. I have two beta readers who are giving conflicting advice, and I’m not sure which one to follow. But if I look at the genre and see what other books of my genre do, I can probably get a good idea.

Also, I will be praying for your brother! I’m sorry to hear things are going down like that…


I think humor is one big way for a reader to connect with a character, even if that character does not have much of an emotional arc. If I can laugh at a character then that goes a long way towards helping me connect as a reader.

I’m writing historical fiction and I constantly have to ignore writing advice! It seems like everything, from the acceptable word count to the presence of a big antagonist is different with historical.

(My healing thoughts are with your brother. I hope everything goes well.)

K.M. Weiland

Great post! Thanks for linking to my blog. I’m glad you enjoyed the flat arc series!

Shelly Chalmers

Interesting post. I’ve found that it’s sometimes trial and error to find what works best for me and the genre I write in, as well as my style in regards to what advice works.

All the best to your brother and his family. Sending positive energy your way, and hoping to hear about a full recovery.

Rita St. Clair
Rita St. Clair

Hi Jami,

Thanks for a wonderful post. As an aspiring romance writer, I’ve learn to take advice from non-romance writers with a grain of salt. I’ll listen, but often their advice does not apply to my genre. Many experts tell you not to switch point of view, but many romance readers want to know the thoughts of both the hero and heroine.

My prayers go out to your family.

Anne R. Allen

Great post Jami! I think everybody who blogs writing advice runs into this. The standard advice on POV doesn’t necessarily work for epic fantasy, space opera or humor (and I’m sure many other genres.) Voice, chapter length, and so many other things will vary by the conventions of your genre.

People looking for rigid rules may be upset when you give advice that doesn’t apply to them, even if you make it clear it’s just one of many suggestions. But as Somerset Maugham said: “There are three rules of writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”

Christina Hawthorne

I wish your brother the best, Jami, and my best to you and all your brother’s loved ones that they should be strong through this stressful time.

Ava Louise

Another great post. Thanks! Hope your brother has a speedy recovery.


It’s nice to hear other writers say that not all rules, advice, techniques, etc. work for all genres. I’m more about reading (and writing) fantasy where everything is plot driven, and less interested in deep POV, so I’ve always had a difficult time with authors that say you have to use deep POV if you want your reader to enjoy your story.

Lisa Creane

Jami, I wonder sometimes about how the author’s voice–the ebb and flow of their writing, the spot-on descriptions, the quirky characters–carry me along in a story in a way that feels different than having the inside scoop on how the character is feeling (whether deep or shallow POV), or empathizing with a character. The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t use “emotional language” all that much, (nevermind the thesaurus *smile*) and yet lots of people sob because the characters John Green created see the world and describe their experience in genuine but unusual ways that make them compelling characters. We want the bad stuff happening to them to go away.

In other words, do you think think we romance writers sometimes overuse emotional language as a short-cut to developing a writing style that moves readers?

And I hope today was a blessed new day for your brother.


Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Oh Jami, here’s something else I found about portraying emotions that might be interesting to you too. Remember that Chinese online story I told you about where I wasn’t used to all the bodily gestures so that they felt kind of jarring? This same story often has a lot of longish thought narration/ introspection passages between dialogue quotes, which I was also not too used to and felt weird about. HOWEVER, after reading many more chapters of this work, I actually GOT USED TO these bodily gestures and long intervening introspective passages!! And so they became unnoticeable to me and didn’t bother me anymore. Even more than this, after getting used to them, I started to enjoy and appreciate these body gestures and internal thought passages. 😀 So, after you get used to seeing a style, there’s a lot you might be able to accept and even learn to like! And the length of time you need to get used to it could be as short as reading many more chapters of the same book! Of course, I’m not saying this “use new style and wait for readers to come to accept and appreciate it” method is always advisable, as some readers may put down the story immediately at the first sign of discontent. However, this method is also good in a way because this is how readers get to learn about new styles of writing, and expand the range of styles they are able to enjoy. I’m someone who’s…  — Read More »


[…] As writers, we usually want to keep the reader immersed in the story so they don’t put down our book in the middle and not care enough to pick it up again. We often keep readers’ interest by engaging their emotions. […]

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