I firmly believe that while readers sometimes do connect with our stories, they more often fall in love with our characters. If we want to really pull readers in, we’ve got to make each protagonist relatable and easy to connect with.
This can be a tall order when you consider that each reader is different. Their geographic location, individual circumstances, personal experiences—no one character can encapsulate all of that for every person who picks up your book. But there’s one thing that every reader and character do have in common: emotion.
No matter who the reader is or what they’ve been through, they’ve experienced the same emotions as the character. The circumstances may be different, but they will connect on some level to a character exhibiting the feelings they’ve felt at important moments in life. For this reason, it’s super important to write a character’s emotions consistently and believably so they ring true with readers. As with many other areas of writing, the best way to do this is through showing that emotion rather than telling it. But before we can write about the character’s feelings, we need to know how those feelings will manifest. In short, we need to establish the character’s emotional range.
Each person (and therefore, each character) has a unique way of expressing their feelings, meaning you can have two people in the same situation and they’ll respond differently. If we’re going to consistently write a character’s emotions, we need to first know her baseline—how she reacts to the normal, everyday things that happen. To figure that out, ask the following questions:
Is My Character Demonstrative or Reserved?
Think of emotional range as a spectrum: a straight line with RESERVED at one end and DEMONSTRATIVE on the other. Where does your character fall on this line? A demonstrative character has bigger reactions while a reserved character plays it closer to the vest. They feel the same emotions, but they exhibit them differently.
Consider the lovely but fairly mundane event of receiving flowers at work. A reserved character is likely to smile when it happens. Maybe she’ll hug herself, gaze at the beautiful flowers with a silly grin on her face, and shoot off a quiet email to thank the sender.
In contrast, a demonstrative character screeches as the delivery person walks in. She may jump up and hug him. She slaps her thighs and laughs out loud, then takes her flowers on a victory lap around the office to show them to everyone.
Same situation, but different responses based on the character’s emotional range. When you know where your character falls on that spectrum, you’ll have a good idea of what her responses will be to the normal, day-to-day things that happen. Then you can write those reactions consistently so readers will know what to expect. This builds that reader-character connection as the reader begins to get to know the character better.
Who Is She Comfortable With?
Most people don’t act the same around everyone. They’re more themselves with the people who make them feel comfortable. Whether that’s family, close friends, a co-worker, or the next-door neighbor, the character will stay true to her typical responses when she’s with those people. But as she gets less comfortable, her emotional responses will change, becoming either more inhibited or exaggerated.
Examine the various people groups your character will encounter and determine how she’ll act around them. How is she with strangers? Is she sensitive around people of a specific race, religion, or political affiliation? What about people with certain physical characteristics? Examine those dynamics and the reasons behind them so you’ll know which cast members will evoke a different emotional response from her.
Who Does She Hide Her Emotions From?
When we’re feeling vulnerable, we tend to hold back emotionally. Maybe the people making your character uncomfortable can be found a little closer to home: her father-in-law, her soccer coach, her child’s third-grade teacher. The pool boy. If you’ve done your backstory work, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out why these people set the character off. If you haven’t gotten that far in your research, explore those relationships. This will provide a better understanding of how your character will depart from her baseline when she’s around certain people.
Which Emotions Does She Suppress?
One of the nuances of emotion is that not everyone is comfortable with the full range. You might have a character who’s mostly in touch with her feelings—except when it comes to fear, or anger, or sadness. At the first sign of that emotion, she hides it—possibly, only when she’s around one of the people mentioned above. This is one of those small details that, when added carefully and thoughtfully to your character’s emotional profile, can make her more realistic and familiar to readers.
Questions like these are important to consider because they define your character’s “norm.” They tell you how she’ll respond to daily stimuli so you can write her reactions consistently and realistically. This information will also tell you how hard you’ll have to push when you need a bigger emotional response and elevated conflict—which is another way to pull readers in. But that’s a post for another day.
If you’re wondering how exactly how to figure out your character’s emotional range, the One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder has a whole section devoted to this. Sign up for a free two-week trial and see what you think.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.