|Delaware – 2013 – Photo Credit Jan Bowman
Showing an emotional response is one of the more difficult things for a writer to capture on the page. Every day we go through a range of emotions and show them to others in subtle or not so subtle ways and yet when we sit down to put a character’s emotional life on the page we can find ourselves wandering into the land of clichés or reduced to naming the emotion.
For example, how does a writer successfully show grief, guilt, sympathy, or hope? How can a particular emotion be identified without the author actually naming the response? What does gratitude or fondness or sympathy look like when we observe it in the real world? How does a writer know what an experience feels like if they haven’t lived it? I am struggling with these questions and others as I revise a couple of new stories.
I returned to Ann Hood’s wonderful craft book, Creating Character Emotions hoping to find techniques so that I can approach characters emotions in fresh compelling ways that allow readers to get what’s happening without the writer or the narrator intruding on their process. I find in my own recent work I do a better job with some emotions than others. For example I can get at responses like fear, worry, anxiety and surprise on the page, but I have a difficult time getting at hate, hope, sympathy and despair. I am not sure why that is the case and I don’t have time to sit down for a therapy session so I consult with Ann Hood’s book, hoping for insights. Hood gives attention to 36 specific emotions that are common to characters in fiction. She names them, provides examples of unsuccessful attempts and follows with samples of interesting writing that does a masterful job of describing an observable or internalized response.
So how do you render emotional responses with words and gestures? Hood says that . . . “Perhaps it sounds simple to imagine and match up an emotional state of my own with one I want my character to have, to change a few details to capture the emotion exactly, but it is not so simple.” She suggests that it helps to notice that even within a given emotion, like anger, there lies a spectrum of possibilities or degrees of intensity. Knowing what a particular character feels comes from truly knowing who the person is and what drives them. It comes from using concrete details, point of view, as well as action and gesture to show a specific character’s emotional response.
“I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” — James Mitchener
About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan’s stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award. Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers.
A recent story was a finalist for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, another story was a 2013 finalist in the Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others.
She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories. She has nonfiction publications in Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at: www.janbowmanwriter.com or visit blog: http://janbowmanwriter.blogspot.com