We tend to think of emotions as something buried deep inside us, but emotions are as visible as they are palpable. From the Latin ēmovēre (to disturb) and movēre (to move), the word emotion reflects its inherent volatility. Emotions disturb our equilibrium and move our states of mind from one condition to another. Circumventing volition, they arise spontaneously, and whether aroused by relief or by horror, we are excited, stirred, agitated.
Emotions are energy. Emotions infuse us with the momentum to take action, even if that action amounts to a slight lowering of our eyelids. In a dearth of physical movement, emotions move our physiology, causing body temperatures to rise and fall, heartbeat and respiration rates to fluctuate. Faces flush, minds race, thoughts elude us, hands sweat, and mouths begin to salivate or go dry. In some cases, our emotions have scents; in others, tastes.
Good writers don’t tell what their characters are feeling. With so much sensory material to draw from, defining a character’s emotional state with abstract labels is a travesty. The writer who tells us so-n-so ‘stood anxiously’ or ‘said sadly’ hasn’t yet developed the artistry to portray the human condition. Essentially, he classifies his character’s internal response, not only missing an opportunity to move his readers, but also putting a good many of them off. Ejected from the experience, his audience remembers that someone is telling a story. They may begin to suspect that this someone lacks the ability to make the journey worthwhile.
Mark Twain, one of his 19 Rules for Writing Fiction—
"…that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the other."
To be alive in the world is a sensory thing. Be sure that the world you invite your readers into is equally sensory. Take care not to render them blind or deaf, stripped of tactile and olfactory sensations.
Fear and excitement, doubt, grief, anxiety, embarrassment—the character’s inner torment or zeal becomes real when it manifests before our five senses. When a character demonstrates his emotional response in actions, gestures, or dialogue, the audience simultaneously feels through him and empathy for him. It doesn’t matter if we dislike the character. As with King Lear’s loss at the end of Shakespeare’s play, we feel his pain. Emotions move us.
Revealing Our Characters
“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
Actions certainly speak louder than words, but in the final analysis, what is action but an expression of emotion. Structure is character, and character is structure. When the writer weaves thematic significance, emotional development, and action plot lines in a tight braid, the resulting work has substance and widespread appeal. His story is true to life because, as in life, the writer has shown that emotions and actions are indivisible.
By allowing our characters’ emotions to play out in action, dialogue and guestures, we reveal them in all their glory. And there are myriad scenarios that give us an opportunity to do just that.
WHAT HE LOOKS LIKE
The beautiful blonde heroine, the jolly fat man, the killer with wild eyes and a scar across his face—looks can easily spiral into stereotypes. But when used to defy sterotype and define persona, appearances make a glaring statement that alludes to our characters’ worldview and emotional dispositions.
How do we do this? By zeroing in on the physical traits that fall within our characters’ ability to control.
How she dresses, whether her haircut is fashionable, which newspaper she’s carrying, the condition of her shoes—all reveal shades of her personality. Think of Laurie Colwin’s heroine in My Mistress, a successful economist wearing "a pair of very old, broken shoes with tassels, the backs of which are held together with electrical tape." Now here’s a woman who lives her job, seemingly revering sound economical practice to the chatter of her colleagues’ opinions of her.
Truman Capote clothed his Holly Golightly in “a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker”, while Virginia Woolf’s eponymous Orlando attempts to match her dress to a string of pearls in the space of a paragraph, changing four times, from spring cotton to grey taffeta to peach bloom, and finally to a wine-coloured brocade. At the last moment, when she’s about to ring the bell for her servants, she tears the outfit off and goes with the “neat black silk knickerbockers of an ordinary nobleman”.
Rather than incidental, these details are telling. They reveal character. Slim cool black dress—we get Miss Golightly’s outlook. Same with Orlando, the superficial and unstable mindset alludes to its underlying insecurities.