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.
That might mean we give readers characters to root for, anti-heroes they can’t look away from, or plot situations or character circumstances they want to learn more about. A common method for keeping readers engaged is to create a sense of empathy or sympathy with the characters, and that means we want our readers to feel emotional when our characters do (even if the emotions don’t match up exactly).
Because of those goals, we see a lot of writing advice about how to create emotions, show emotions, strengthen emotions, layer emotions, handle intense emotions, etc. But we might not have stepped back and thought about (or learned about) the psychology behind those emotions we tap into.
When we understand the psychology driving emotions, we might be able to make those emotions more realistic. We might recognize when there’s a disconnect on a character’s emotional journey, or we might see when a character’s motivation doesn’t match the accompanying emotion.
So I’m excited to bring Kassandra Lamb here today for a guest post on “emotional psychology 101.” Her experience makes her the perfect person to help us understand the deeper psychology behind our characters’ experiences.
Please welcome Kassandra Lamb! *smile*
Emotions 101 for Writers
As a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer, there is one subject that I know well—emotions. For years, I helped my clients identify, understand, and manage their feelings. But when I first sat down to write about my characters’ feelings, I discovered some new challenges.
I had been trained to name the emotion for the client. Now, as a writer, I couldn’t name it. I had to show, not tell. And I had to do so while maintaining the pace of the story. Ack!
I did finally get the hang of it, and my psychology background was an advantage. So let me share some things I’ve discovered about showing emotions in our writing.
The Basics: The Physical Side of Emotions
In order to immerse the reader in the character’s emotional experience, we describe their behavior, body language, internal dialogue, and visceral sensations. The last of these can be difficult to pin down but is often the most powerful way to show, not tell.
We humans experience emotions first as sensations in different parts of our bodies. There are individual variations—some people are more chest feelers while others mostly experience stomach sensations—but there are definite trends in where and how we tend to feel each emotion.
(Note: this is a way that you can individualize your characters. One can be a chest person and another feels most things in their stomach.)
Here are some examples of the sensations related to each of our basic emotions. (For an extensive list of ways to describe feelings, both Jami and I recommend The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.)
- Fear: tightening in throat/chest, dry mouth, nauseous/butterflies in stomach, heart pounding, chills, hair standing up on neck, hyperventilation, etc.
- Anger: heat, heart pounding, muscles clenched (especially fists/jaw), gritted teeth, outward pressure in chest, rapid respiration, etc.
- Sadness: heaviness (especially around heart), ache or sharp pain in chest, lump in throat, voice choked, stinging/gritty feeling in eyes, loss of appetite, fatigue, etc.
- Happiness: lightness, floating sensation, bubbly sensation in chest, warm, tingling, etc. (excitement includes restlessness, rapid heart rate, etc.)
There is a physiological reason for these tendencies. A part of the nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system (ANS), regulates our body’s reaction to the environment and prepares us to respond. The ANS has two branches, the arousal branch and the non-aroused branch (that’s not what they’re called, but I’m guessing you could care less about the confusing, more scientific terms).
You might have noticed that anger and fear have a lot of overlap. These emotions are part of the fight-or-flight response that is triggered by the arousal branch of the ANS when we perceive a threat. There’s also some overlap with excitement, another aroused emotion. Be careful with these overlapping emotions. If the feeling isn’t apparent from the context, you may need to use at least one sensation that is exclusive to that emotion.
“His heart pounded. A chill ran through him.”
(Got it. We’re talking fear here.)
The non-aroused branch of the ANS takes over when we are safe. It kicks in even more so when we are sad or depressed. We can become so under-aroused that it’s hard to function.
There are three other basic emotions, called the self-conscious emotions. These develop in toddlerhood, when the child first develops a sense of themselves as a separate being.
- Pride: See happiness, add swelling sensation in chest.
- Guilt: lump in throat, pain in chest, queasy stomach, twist in gut, etc.
- Shame: heat in face and/or all over, heaviness, shrinking or pulling body in on itself feeling (as in wanting to hide), etc.
Guilt and shame, while related, are not the same. Guilt is about our behavior while shame is about our being. We feel guilty for what we have done; we feel ashamed of ourselves (for more on this, see my past posts on guilt and shame).
Emotional Twists and Turns (i.e., Emotions Aren’t Logical)
People can get guilt and shame twisted up together in their psyches and feel ashamed because they make a mistake (especially if they had fairly dysfunctional childhoods). This can be a useful dynamic when developing a character with poor self-esteem.
Also guilt sometimes morphs into misdirected anger. A man cheats on his wife, gets caught, and is initially remorseful. But then he becomes angry if she doesn’t forgive him right away. He’s subconsciously mad at her for “making” him feel guilty. Or he doesn’t get caught but his guilt turns to anger on a subconscious level and he picks fights with his wife, maybe even projects his guilt onto her and accuses her of infidelity.
Ever wonder why some women are attracted to bad boys, no matter how much they bemoan the way these men treat them? Another way emotions can get twisted together in women from abusive backgrounds is confusion between fear and love on a subconscious level, or even fear and sexual excitement. The parents they loved, and who were supposed to love them, were scary. So they meet the bad boy, feel fear (a realistic reaction) but then misinterpret the fear as attraction and/or love.
Jealousy is a common motivation in characters. It’s a combination of fear and anger. The person is afraid of losing someone they love to another, and they are angry at the person they perceive as a threat. How dare this woman try to take my man? The tricky part is keeping it straight which emotion one feels toward whom. The jealous person may aim the anger at the wrong party (i.e., their loved one) and end up bringing about the very thing they fear, the loss of that relationship.
Good Grief! (i.e., How to Write Grief “Right”)
As an avid reader of mysteries, it really bugs me when an author glosses over the grief of those close to the murder victim. Grief is hard to portray realistically, and it can potentially debilitate a character. But when a character sets out to solve or avenge a father’s/sister’s/lover’s/child’s murder, damn it, they’re gonna have some grief to deal with along the way.
Grief is the most complicated and illogical emotion of them all (and they’re all illogical). It’s a mixture of pain, anger, bargaining, and guilt. If someone or something can be blamed for the loss, the grieving person will go there, at least initially. Often they will be angry with the person who died (told ya it’s illogical), although they probably won’t acknowledge this anger consciously. They feel abandoned and/or are mad about something the dead person did that they feel led to their death.
In book one of my series, the protagonist’s first husband is killed while doing a favor for her. The night after his funeral, she rages, “Why did he have to be so damned nice?” Of course, she immediately feels guilty for being angry at him for being a nice guy.
Survivor guilt is also common. The person becomes convinced that if they had done something differently, the death would have been prevented. This is a belated attempt to reclaim a sense of control over a situation that they couldn’t control. Because helplessness is the emotion humans hate the most!
Grief can lead to various pursuits of justice and/or vengeance that may or may not be rational. This makes for some interesting plot points. BUT (back to my pet peeve) the person would not be able to completely sublimate their grief with these pursuits. They should still periodically feel a surge of guilt, anger at the dead person, anger at themselves, or just plain sadness.
Grief brings us to the subject of…
When Is Deep Point of View Too Deep?
Readers want to be entertained by realistic stories about characters they can relate to. They do not want to be overwhelmed by the characters’ emotions. So there are times, for this reason and also for pacing purposes, when toning down the emotion is called for.
I have discovered several ways to do this:
Limit the Number of Visceral Sensations:
Two usually does the trick, especially if you also have some internal dialogue. I once read a story—that was otherwise well written—in which the heroine’s grief for her lost lover was expressed in a long paragraph that contained every grief-related visceral sensation known to humankind. Instead of feeling immersed in the character, I found myself pulling back, thinking, “That’s a little over the top.”
It really wasn’t. A grieving person might very well feel all of those things. But it’s too much emotion for the reader’s comfort level, and it broke the tension in the story.
Replace One of the Visceral Sensations with an Action Beat:
This is a great place to add a little touch of individualization. Is this a character who would be irritated with her grief, or would she succumb to it? Have her swipe her wet cheeks with the back of her hand, or throw herself across her bed.
When this guy is angry, is he the yell-and-pound-the-table type, or would he narrow his eyes? This shows the reader the emotion without immersing them in it quite so much.
Use a Different Point of View (POV):
Of course this only works if you write in multiple POV. When writing a scene in which a character has a strong emotional reaction, sometimes (not always though) it is better to show that scene through the eyes of a different character.
I often do this with both grief and intense anger, especially if wallowing in the emotions would slow down the pace too much. The emotion can be quite powerful when seen through the eyes of a close friend or lover, and yet it is not as overwhelming.
The Deft Stroke:
This is often the best approach when pacing is the major issue. One short description of a visceral sensation and then move on.
In one scene in my new thriller, the protagonist’s husband is in a dangerous situation when he receives a text message from his wife referring to another character as his girlfriend. Realizing this is not the time or place to deal with “a wife in a jealous snit,” he sends her a one-word answer and gets on with the action of the scene. (And of course pays for that terse answer in a later scene.)
My brother (my guy-stuff consultant) pointed out that the character would be angry at the accusation, even though he chooses to push it aside for now. Well crap! How do I have this guy get angry and deal with his anger, all in an instant before the tension in the scene dissipates. After mulling it over, I hit on the deft stroke.
“His jaw clenched.”
This is that character’s main way of exhibiting anger, so that three-word sentence is more than enough to show his emotion.
A quick action beat and/or short line of internal dialogue works well too.
“Her head jerked up.”
“I’m just ducky, *sshole.”
Obviously, this is a quick overview of how to write about emotions. So by all means, ask me questions in the comments.
Writing and psychology have always vied for number one on Kassandra Lamb’s Greatest Passions list. In her youth, she had to make a decision between writing and paying the bills. Partial to electricity and food, she studied psychology. Now retired from a career as a psychotherapist and college professor, she spends most of her time in an alternate universe with her characters. The portal to this universe (aka her computer) is located in Florida where her husband and dog catch occasional glimpses of her. She and her husband also spend part of each summer in her native Maryland, where the Kate Huntington mysteries are set.
Celebration turns to nightmare when psychotherapist Kate Huntington’s guest of honor disappears en route to her own retirement party. Kate’s former boss, Sally Ford, has been kidnapped by a serial killer who holds his victims exactly forty-eight hours before killing them.
With time ticking away, the police allow Kate and her P.I. husband to help with the investigation. The FBI agents involved in the case have mixed reactions to the “civilian consultants.” The senior agent welcomes Kate’s assistance as he fine-tunes his psychological profile. His voluptuous, young partner is more by the book. She locks horns out in the field with Kate’s husband, while back at headquarters, misunderstandings abound. But they can ill afford these distractions, since Sally’s time is about to expire.
Thank you, Kassandra! I find this fascinating (psychology and brain stuff are two of my nerd hobbies *smile*). I’ve always believed an understanding of this topic helps writers, so I’m grateful to you for sharing this post.
We’ve mentioned here on my blog about how visceral reactions (throat clenching, heart pounding, etc.) work in small doses, but we can easily overdo it (to the point where it hurts the pacing). So it’s good to get “permission” from a psychologist to find a happy medium between realism and writing craft. *smile*
As we’ve also talked about how those visceral reactions overlap from one emotion to another, I loved hearing about why that overlap exists. As Kassandra alluded to, that’s why we need to ensure our meaning is clear with more specific visceral reactions or by layering in other emotional cues (body language, dialogue, etc.).
Many of us also struggle with how to handle intense emotions, such as grief, so I appreciated Kassandra’s tips on our options. She mentioned some great approaches that I hadn’t thought of before, so now I have more tools to add to my writing toolbox. Hopefully, you all found something helpful in my nerdy selection of a guest post too. *smile*
Do you think understanding the psychology helps us write more realistic emotions? When emotions haven’t felt realistic in stories you’ve read, what felt “off” about them? Do you have any other tips for how to write emotions realistically? What emotions do you have the most trouble portraying? Kassandra will be checking the comments, so now’s your chance to ask for help!Pin It