Recently I was at a workshop with Donald Maass and the topic of Emotional Writing came up. As you can imagine, I immediately perked up and my fingers became cyclones over the keyboard of my iPad, taking notes.
The gist of it was this: the most powerful stories have emotional writing, the kind where we dig deep into our own feelings and then put them on the page. Donald encouraged us to move past ‘expected’ character emotions and try for something deeper, more primal. Something unexpected.
We were to take a scene from our book, list the primary emotion our character was feeling, and then change it to something they would never dare to voice or show, but felt none-the-less.
I chose a scene from my Upper MG WIP, Wrath of a God. The Egyptian God Osiris, newly resurrected and clothed as a simple human storekeeper, shows up at the protagonist’s house as a surprise dinner guest. The goal is to intimidate my hero, Brett, and convince him to stop fighting Osiris as he attempts to gain control over everyone in the town. The two of them are speaking outside, away from Brett’s mother who doesn’t know who Osiris really is. Brett is full of anger and frustration because deep down, he knows he’s powerless to stop the God.
But a deeper emotion, something unexpected? What might he also feel? I decided to try DESIRE.
Donald then told us to then duct tape our protagonist, and show that emotion non-verbally (talk about right up my alley!) Want to see what I came up with? (WARNING: It’s not exceptionally written–just a two minute free write!)
A glow came off of Osiris, a hue that had nothing to do with the sun setting. It was something that came from inside the god…a sureness, a confidence. He was powerful, close to having it all. Brett imagined that for a moment, imagined the feeling of control, the ability to wipe the slate clean. To heal his mother, to heal the town.
His chest expanded and he straightened with the need to have what Osiris had, to shape the world with power. But as he stared at the god, the shadows clutching the sharp angles of his face stood out in dark contrast. Power corrupted. Power consumed. If Brett had it, would he do good? Or would he become like Osiris, and only want more? A deep pain spread in his chest and he reached up, kneading it with his palm. This was wrong. How could he feel this, want this?
I love what I came up with, because it’s so much deeper than the original emotions of anger and frustration. By honing in on Brett’s desire, I show how he craves what he doesn’t have (power & control), and then the shame he feels at wanting to be like the antagonist.
Donald then challenged us to find 20 more scenes and do this very same thing. And you know what? I plan to. (Oh and that little book on the right? Click on it. You want to own it, trust me–it’s fabulous!)
How about you? Have you ever used an unexpected emotional reaction to deepen your character to readers? Let me know in the comments!