Writing Novels with Believable Emotions

writing novels with believable emotions

When writing novels with believable emotions, ‘Write what you know‘ is a well known maxim because human emotions are universal, and descriptions of emotions are often interchangeable.

I’ll give you an example. When I was a teenager, I was given the opportunity of flying as a passenger in a two-seater trainer where the two occupants sat one behind the other (a Chipmunk if anyone is interested in the type of plane). I had to wear a parachute, and I sat immediately behind the pilot. During the flight, the pilot asked me if I wanted to do some aerobatics, and I eagerly agreed. He rolled the plane to the right and left and did a couple of loops. My heart was pumping, the adrenalin was racing. I had butterflies in my stomach, and I was really EXCITED.

The pilot then said he was going to do another sort of turn, but I didn’t catch everything he said. It didn’t bother me. I was still excited as he hurled the plane around, but things changed as the plane turned upside down at the top of a loop. The engine stopped. The propeller stopped turning. The plane just hung there, upside down and immobile. Frantically, I tried to remember the instructions I’d received about the parachute, and I reached out to slide the canopy back. My heart was pumping, the adrenalin was racing. I had butterflies in my stomach, and I was really AFRAID.

The emotions were the same. I was excited whilst knowing I was in a safe environment, but scared when I thought I was in an unsafe environment. What was happening to my body was the same in both cases. My body prepared itself for fight (excitement) or flight (fear). To cut a long story short, the pilot had told me he was doing a stall turn, but I had only caught the word ‘turn’. He’d deliberately caused the plane to stall, and just as I was about to pull the canopy back, he started the engine again and my fear returned to excitement.

The above story illustrates context is often the only difference between fear and excitement.

You may not have experience phobia, but we have all experienced fear. You may not have killed anyone, but we have all experienced anger. You can use those emotions in other settings, and describe them in your characters.

If your protagonist is being attacked and in fear of their life, describe some occasion when you have been afraid. Imagine that fear if you had not been able to escape from the situation causing it. That’s how your protagonist feels. They haven’t got your hindsight. You may know your protagonist will escape, but your protagonist doesn’t know it. They will feel a fear from which there seems no escape.

Write about all your emotions in the same way. To a greater or lesser extent, you will have experienced every emotion the characters in your book will experience.

Want your character to be aggressive and fight off aliens from space? You’ve never done that, but you have felt aggression. In the past, someone will have annoyed you so much you’d have gladly attacked them. You may not have actually carried out the attack, but we’ve all felt like doing so. Use that experience. That’s the experience your protagonist is going to have when they attack the aliens. That, and fear, and excitement. All rolled into one.

Each one of our emotions has two parts to them. There is the internal part, the things going through the head of the character, and there is the external part, the actions the character takes because of the emotion they feel.

Another maxim for writers is ‘show don’t tell‘, and this applies as much to emotions as to the consequences of the emotions.

Writing novels with believable emotions. Let’s go back to the description of my exciting/frightening flight.

Once the engine has stalled, I could write, “I was afraid, and prepared to bale out,” but that neither conveys the fear I felt or describe my subsequent actions.

I could also write, “My heart began pounding. I felt the rush of adrenalin as the blood was diverted from my skin, and the butterflies in my stomach were flapping their wings like mad. For a moment, I never moved. I was mesmerised by the unmoving propellor visible through the perspex in front of me. I checked my parachute, making a mental note of where my rip chord was, before looking for the handle on the canopy above my head and reaching out for it with my clammy hand.”

When writing about emotions, write what you know. By the time we’re in our late teens, we’ve all lived through every emotion imaginable, and we all have the experience necessary to describe what our characters are living through. You may need to reduce or magnify your own experience to fit the circumstances to your character, but your own experience will help you describe your character’s emotion in a way that resonates with readers.

For anyone serious about describing emotions I recommend The Emotional Thesaurus (Second Edition), ISBN: 9780989772594, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The authors have listed over 130 emotions in alphabetical order, and devoted a couple of pages to describe the physical signs, internal sensation, mental reaction, and long-term consequences of each emotion.

Taking ‘fear‘ as an example, the book lists 34 physical signs that someone is afraid, 8 internal sensation, 7 mental reactions, 8 long-term consequences of prolonged fear, and 6 signs that fear is being suppressed. The book is available from all good booksellers and provides a wealth of knowledge about any emotion you will ever want to write about. When writing novels with believable emotions I cannot recommend the above book enough. (NOTE: The above link is not a sponsored link).

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