Thoughts About Emotions in Fiction

Emotions, difficult things they are in real life and in fiction. I was reading one of my trilogy books and realized I could add a lot more impact. It was a scene where a character realizes that his brother has betrayed his family, but also that a beloved daughter is not dead, and that the character will be executed. So there’s lots of emotion. I improved the impact by adding more body language. That got me thinking. To quote “The Emotion Thesaurus”:

“It isn’t enough to show emotion; a writer needs to make the reader feel it.”

This is a version of “show, don’t tell”, which is generally excellent advice.

However, that got me thinking. The difference between a flat uninteresting story and a gripping can’t-put-it-down story, is usually the emotional content and emotional connection.

But, how often do real people understand emotional cues?

Most don’t. We jump to the conclusion. That person is angry. The other person is sad. We don’t consciously notice the tense muscle or the downcast eyes. Moreover, emotions are usually subtle. The vast majority of people don’t put their hearts/emotions on the their sleeves. A co-worker might not know that their office-mate is angry until that mate actually says “I am angry”.

However, as has been said many times, we don’t write for accuracy but to create the impression of accuracy. Witness how often people use “Um” and “Ah”. Any writer who used that many “Ums” and “Ahs” would loose their readers. So we should let the reader see for themselves that the character is confused, rather than just saying so.

On the flip side, using too many emotional tags makes the prose purple. Most published books have very few explicit body language references. Try it. Pick a published famous book and start counting explicit mention of body language. Rarely does any page have even one. They use spoken character words, explicit POV, character behaviours and situation.

I have come across three situations in my own writing that muddy the waters even further.

1. A pair of telepathic twins. They can feel each other’s emotions even over hundreds of miles. There’s no body language, no spoken word. Allison knows that Sean is angry, or sad, or happy, or looking at an sexy woman. Sometimes they start conversations based on those already understood emotions. I can’t use physical signals, language or even internal sensations. Sean doesn’t feel Allison’s pounding heartbeat. It’s a mental connection. He might be scared for her, but he can’t feel her heartbeat any more than he can feel her feet pounding along the road. If he could feel those sensations, then he’d also be able to feel the smoothness of satin on her fingers, the touch of her lover, etc. No! Don’t want to go quite that far. That’s just creepy, all the more since it’s a first person POV story.

2. My next novel: a mystery story. The POV character misinterprets the emotions of the villain. That fact cannot be revealed until the end of the story. Therefore all body language cues have to be suppressed, not just for the villain, but for everyone, because if I didn’t then the villain would be an obvious special case.

3. Fantasy and non-human races and cultural differences. If you have elves, dwarves, andorians, etc. why would they have the same body-language as a human? They shouldn’t. In Big Bang Theory, Raj says “Er, a smile means something different in my country…you know, um, tears of joy, smile of sadness….India’s a goofy place.” Whether or not India is goofy, tears can come from happiness or chagrin or almost any overwhelming emotion. Nodding your head is not a universal sign of agreement, even for humans. Laughter may mean embarrassment, defensiveness, triumph or being tickled (which is not fun). Punching the air means one thing in America, and other things elsewhere. Flipping the bird is also not a universal rudeness. Other cultures use different gestures. And that’s just for humans. What do empathic betazoids do? You can bet they won’t use the same body language cues that humans have. They don’t need them.

What is the best balance? I don’t have the answers. Just questions.

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