Showing Complex Emotion

ckatt

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There are two things I'm struggling with right now. One is creating relatable characters by exposing their emotions and inner motivations. The other is doing so without "telling" Some of my fellow workshopers have said they find it hard to identify with my characters because they don't know their internal state or that their internal thoughts seem unfocused.
When it comes to showing basic emotions like joy, anguish, fear or anger. I don't think its that difficult to show by simply using facial expressions, speed of breath, that sort of thing. But when it comes to more complex emotional mixtures, such as say, guilt for not helping a friend mixed with relief at not getting caught up in their problems, I'm not sure how to show that in a clear way. Those of you who feel confident when writing that sort of thing, what works for you?
 

sknox

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I'm not sure I can say how to write guilt or indeed joy, anguish, fear, anger. I only know how to deal with a specific character in a specific situation. I'm aware in a general way that the character is angry not happy, or whatever. But there are *reasons* for how the character feels in that moment, and that's what I write.

The example you give is very general, but maybe it's enough to illustrate what I'm saying. We have two friends. One has problems. So the first thing is to look at those problems. More than one problem? How has that friend been handling those problems?

OK, now the other friend, the presumed MC. Do they have their own problems? Do those entangle with the other friend's problems, or are they separate? Are these two friends from childhood, army buddies, what's their history?

Then there's the situation itself. We aren't going to learn about these problems in a general, descriptive way. Let's say the friend has a drug problem, has got into financial difficulties, owes some bad people good money. So MC refuses to lend (again!) money to friend. Maybe this happens face to face, maybe via text, maybe by voice. Maybe it's just the two of them, maybe there are others present. All these things are going to cause the scene to play differently. Then, later, when the MC is thinking on what happened, s/he is going to recall specific things. If MC feels relief, it's going to be about something specific.

And so on. It's about getting down into the scene with the characters.
 

HareBrain

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I'm not sure I can say how to write guilt or indeed joy, anguish, fear, anger. I only know how to deal with a specific character in a specific situation.
Yes, that's it.

It's hard to say anything more without examples of what your readers have problems with. But (writing advice 101) have you looked at how other authors achieve it? There must be examples in your favourite novels. If you can see that they're doing it but can't work out how, that might be something we could help with.
 

Toby Frost

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I agree with the others, that it's hard to give much help in the abstract. Once you've got enough posts you could put an excerpt up for critique, which would help, but these may well be things that it takes a whole novel to judge. There are phrases that sometimes hit the spot (I remember Peake talking about "the intense concentration of grief") but I think it requires a lot of time and context to show without telling.

On the other hand, I don't think there's anything wrong with telling, especially if it's quick and the story isn't fundamentally about exploring that emotion. I would have no problem with something like this in the right context:

She spent much of the next few days fretting about it all. She was relieved to be away from the office, but guilty for feeling relieved, and that guilt hung over her time away. By Friday, she was sick with worry, and desperate to return.

I think a lot of it depends on the circumstances and the overall tone of the story.
 

Star-child

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Have the charter say how guilty they feel and then show their private relief a paragraph or two later. Guilt/relief isn't really complicated - they are separate things that a person alternates between.
 

Brian G Turner

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The other is doing so without "telling"
But you can tell when it comes to motivation - I think it's expected. It would be strange to rely only on physical expressions and actions to convey internal conflicts.

It can be very difficult to get into the emotions of characters, perhaps especially for men who have lived their lives been told to ignore their emotions or shrug off their feelings.

However, there was plenty of advise provided in the other thread for dealing with this - but don't expect to be able to suddenly do it really well. Expect some time to practice and develop the art of expressing character emotions - it can be hard to find a balance even with experience.
 

tinkerdan

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Personally I think that telling is okay; however it might work best when coupled with some show.
What do I mean?

Body language can show us a lot while it sneaks in a bit of tell.
I did this once, similar to what I have written below. Maybe a bit more subtle than this.

::---------------

She had gazed into his eyes when he asked and it felt like he'd reached straight through and into her heart.

"No," She lied. Her eyes darted away and past him. It was as though a string had snapped and her shoulders started to sag and she resisted the urge to look back into his eyes, focusing instead on her shoes. Pushing her shoulders up she said, "It wasn't me."

"I never said it was. I want to be perfectly honest with you." His hand cupped her chin, gentling her face upward.

'Great,' she thought, 'that makes me feel so much better for my decision.' She pushed back tears; welling in her throat and trying to squeeze out through her eyes as though they were a relief valve. She needed to tell him the truth but couldn't. Not now. Her chin and his hand struggled for long moments, frozen, as she realized that she had to to eventually relent. Eyes are windows into the soul and she hardened hers with a hope to deflect him before he noticed that hers had abandoned her in disgust.
-------------::
 

The Bluestocking

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I find that it depends on the character and even more so if you're writing a story featuring people from different classes, different cultures, different species, and even different planets.

Because different people may express a particular emotion differently. Their body language or "tells" might be different. Even the way they verbally express their emotion or think about it would be different.

It's all about character and context.
 

Margaret Note Spelling

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Perhaps, instead of looking in from the outside--"she clenched her fists"--it might help to focus on outside from inside--"How dare he? That was her pizza! No one had the right to take her pizza out of the oven for her. She wasn't a baby."

Or even a dance between both.

She clenched her fists. How dare he? That was her pizza--no one had the right to take her pizza out of the oven except her and-- Except her. She wasn't a baby. Obviously. But how many times did she have to prove it?

Internal dialogue, right? Free indirect speech. It's not telling, since it's extremely indirect, but I've found it gives you much greater range for complexity. It requires knowing a voice for the character, since basically it's their own mind talking, but it brings you far deeper into the character's head and communicates far more about the character than simply what they're doing, which can be misinterpreted, or what they're feeling, which is telling. And you can make it more and more complex at will, since you can keep tossing in hints at deeper feelings and passing them right by without explanation, just like in dialogue.

Like @tinkerdan's example up there:

Great,' she thought, 'that makes me feel so much better for my decision.' She pushed back tears; welling in her throat and trying to squeeze out through her eyes as though they were a relief valve. She needed to tell him the truth but couldn't. Not now. Her chin and his hand struggled for long moments, frozen, as she realized that she had to to eventually relent. Eyes are windows into the soul and she hardened hers with a hope to deflect him before he noticed that hers had abandoned her in disgust.
It's all about the ratio. Outside action vs. internal thought. Depending on the proportions, you can be farther out or deeper in the character's head. The pizza example was very deep (too deep, in fact, to see the actual physical setting at the moment) and tinkerdan's example was farther out, giving us a brief hint of the character's internal dialogue to spice the action during a tense scene. Different depths can be used at different times, to great effectiveness.
 
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Margaret Note Spelling

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I've often wondered how long it would be before emoticons started showing up in novels! :p

That, and txtspeak. R u ok? (I feel dirty just writing that. But how long will it be before textspeak is classified as a sub-language of English?)

Which gives me a slightly off-topic idea. I'll start a new thread.
 
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ckatt

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Thanks for the responses, all. A few have commented that it's hard to answer without specifics. I can appreciate that.
I'll try to clarify. Our emotional response to something generally fuels our motivation to react. eg. fear of being killed by a zombie fuels your motivation to run away. But it may also fuel your motivation to fight.
But I think I'm getting stuck when a character doesn't fully understand their own emotions. Like someone choosing to stay in an abusive relationship. Even if they are constantly flooded with sadness they might believe that they will be happier staying because the alternative is an unknown. So then you may have readers asking why is this character not leaving, they are sad all the time. But I don't see a smooth way to show the character's fear of being alone or what have you in an action. So I might write something like:

Jordan knew she could just pick up the car keys and be gone. Her sister would take her in, or even Tracey. But then she would become a burden on someone else. Anyway, Mark would come looking and convince her that he was a mess without her. And he'd be right. So what was the point of it at all?

This is just a quick example, not from anything, but it's meant to show how the characters is not taking any action at all but telling the reader what she might do and why she won't. I suppose you could say that not leaving is an action. I could have her pick up the keys and then put them back down, but without the explanation of what the meant I don't think it would work.

Jordan lifted the car keys quietly from the counter. She could be gone in flash. Her sister would take her in, or even Tracey. But then she would become a burden on someone else. Anyway, Mark would come looking and convince her that he was a mess without her. And he'd be right. So what was the point? She set the keys back down.

Does that work better? I don't expect a definitive answer, just if I'm barking up the right tree or not.

these may well be things that it takes a whole novel to judge. There are phrases that sometimes hit the spot (I remember Peake talking about "the intense concentration of grief") but I think it requires a lot of time and context to show without telling.
This is kind of the problem as well. How does one do it in short fiction?

But you can tell when it comes to motivation
This is good to hear

PS
I know the answer is probably to write more. and I do write a lot. but sometimes I feel so alone as I work things out and rambling on the forum helps.
 

Star-child

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Consider that you don't have to tell the reader anything that they couldn't observe for themselves if they were in the room with the characters. Some of the best fiction has protagonists that are just as mysterious in their thoughts and motivations as real people. And that's good writing, too.
 

The Bluestocking

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That, and txtspeak. R u ok? (I feel dirty just writing that. But how long will it be before textspeak is classified as a sub-language of English?)
My little kitsune and her water sprite sidekick have smartphones and they have texted each other with some text speak.

And I've read novels where there is dialogue taking place over a series of texts which, yes, includes text speak.

Not extreme abbreviations and slang but enough to show that the communication is taking place over texts.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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I don't think people have complex emotions. They have complex motivations, certainly. Complexity comes in where there is a cerebral response. Emotions are more enveloping, involving mind and body both, and if they are strong there is only room for one at a time. Which is not to say that a person might not have a series of emotional responses in swift succession. For instance a visceral relief that they have survived, followed by a pang of sorrow because others have not, then the mental response of guilt and unworthiness.

And the same, I think, for emotional responses to a person they both love and resent, where the two would alternate. It might start as one and then build, step by step, to the other, or start as one and then a flash of memory would plunge them into the other.
 

tegeus-Cromis

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FWIW, my kids (one teen, one tween) don't use txtspeak at all. I think they think of it as old-fashioned and quaint. There's really no need for it anymore when you have word suggestions/autofill (not to mention when you're not texting on a flip phone keyboard).

As for showing complex emotion, I think that, for the POV character, this is best done with interior monologue. This is different from "telling."
 

-K2-

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...Like someone choosing to stay in an abusive relationship. Even if they are constantly flooded with sadness they might believe that they will be happier staying because the alternative is an unknown. So then you may have readers asking why is this character not leaving, they are sad all the time. But I don't see a smooth way to show the character's fear of being alone or what have you in an action. So I might write something like:

Jordan knew she could just pick up the car keys and be gone. Her sister would take her in, or even Tracey. But then she would become a burden on someone else. Anyway, Mark would come looking and convince her that he was a mess without her. And he'd be right. So what was the point of it at all?
She's very noble, isn't she?

In abusive relationships your self confidence is worn down. You might not believe what they say to you, but you question whether it's true or not. When you're beat down enough, you quit striving for something more or better and simply endure.

At that point, years peel off... and you don't get prettier when you're depressed. Your youth is gone and the years intended to build a future are lost. You stagnate, know you can't change them, but keep trying. You try to make them happy but it never works and you don't want to waste all the effort you put into the relationship. When you realize its hopeless, and now feel you're ruined, then you just bide your time dreading when he'll come home... fearing what he's doing when he doesn't, because you now believe everyone out there offers more than you do.

So, you break your back not to make it better, but to satisfy him enough to leave you alone... you'll deal with tomorrow when it gets here.

And that doesn't even touch on the six days bad, one day good keeping you believing that there might be hope. Just about the time you've worked up the nerve to act, it's good... then the cycle starts all over again. Weeks turn into years.

Maybe Mark is right... People used to say I was pretty. Now in the mirror I look as old and tired as I feel. Everything I do is wrong. No matter how hard I try, it's never good enough. Mark can do everything better. He's right, no one else would put up with me. I'm old, fat and ugly now. Who would want me?

K2
 
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