Writing Secrets: The touchy-feely art of character portrayal.

 In Tips for Writers

We need to know how your character is feeling, okay?

It’s not enough simply to have things happen to him without giving us any sense of his emotional state.

Part of the reason for this is that reading is all about empathy. We travel your characters’ journeys with them. We can’t do that if we have no clue how they feel about what they’re going through.

But perhaps the more important reason is the impact his emotions have on plot. If we have no idea how they feel, how will we know what they truly want or need?

This follows on from my blog last week in which I suggested that, unless you know what your character wants, your story will founder. Events will simply overtake him, rather than setting him off on the journey he’s destined for.

I’m not advocating a lack of subtlety. You don’t want your character to explain in great capital-lettered speech bubbles exactly what he’s thinking and feeling. But scraps of thought can give us a sense of his emotional state, as can the way he sees the world.

The way he views the environment around him clues us in. What he does and, often more importantly, what he doesn’t do can help us, as can the things he says and what he fails to say.

And don’t forget his body, which will almost certainly provide a physiological reaction. He’ll sweat or itch or become overly hot.  His gestures and body language, certain obsessive mannerisms, may also betray him.

You have many devices at your disposal to give us a sense of his inner life, but we do need a peek inside his head, not only to care, but to set up a good foundation for your plot.

 

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Jo-Anne Richards
Jo-Anne Richards is an internationally published novelist with a PhD in Creative Writing from Wits University. Her first novel, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, was originally published by Headline Review in the UK, and has recently been rereleased as one of the prestigious Picador Africa Classics collection. She ran the Honours programme in Journalism & Media Studies at Wits University for fifteen years.
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