By : FernWithy
Using Your Own Feelings and Experiences to Make Your Characters Believable
Vader got really mad and choked a guy.
The anger began in the pit of his stomach, the familiar restless warmth that spiraled like a pinwheel, throwing off sparks that ran through his nerves and the microchips that passed for them. It burned into what was left his arms, and made the palms of his hands -- poor mechanical things that they were -- itch and cramp. He didn't realize he was crushing the Rebel officer's windpipe until the deed was almost done.
These two versions of the same event have very different effects on readers. The first is flat and declarative, and would be easy to miss if it were buried inside a paragraph. It is told, not shown. We are in neither Vader's mind nor his victim's, and the word "mad" is a subjective word, which doesn't help the reader feel what Vader is feeling. The second, while a bit purple (okay, more than a bit), gives a face to Vader's anger, and direct sensory input for the reader to grasp.
The difference between them isn't just writing style, one with a preference for shorter sentence, the other with a preference for long-winded metaphor. That makes a difference in the pace of a story, but the real distinction between the two is one of specificity. We aren't given a generic idea that Vader is angry; instead we are told how he is angry, what it feels like to him on the inside. If a writer preferred a short sentence, something like "The rage rushed into his hands like lightning" might do well to convey a similar sensation.
Is it how Vader really feels anger, inasmuch as a fictional character can be said to "really feel" anything?
That's impossible to say. If that's how he experiences his anger, that will determine the way he behaves over the course of a story. I decided on the rising, almost-but-not-quite uncontrollable temper because it suits the way I view the character. It gets away from him sometimes, but Anakin's just present enough to realize it and regret it... too late. But what is it he specifically feels, and how can a writer express it?
In the end, when it comes to emotions, there's only one source you can be really sure about -- yourself. The popular advice to "write what you know" doesn't mean you should be trapped into writing only about what you see across the street, but it does mean that you need to understand your reactions to what you see across the street, and know what they mean.
There is a school of acting called "method acting" in which the actor uses memories of his emotions and experiences in order to create the role he's playing. At its best, method acting can render wonderfully realistic, textured performances, and avoids clichéd representations. It assumes (and assures) that every character you portray comes from inside you, from the way you actually experience the world. In that way, it gives your creation a ring of "truth." Of course, it's easiest to do this with characters with whom you identify on some level, but it will be true even of those you find loathsome. We all have our less than pleasant aspects, and artists need to be able to understand and use them in fiction.
Writing believable characters is a lot like acting, except that you are playing all the parts, and "method writing" can be a valuable tool, used carefully. As a writer (or an actor, for that matter), getting the raw emotion is only the first step. The art comes in controlling and fine-tuning it, finding out how to use it in the context of the character and the story. Once you've found the emotion, you have to be able to step outside of it and make it work for you.
That said, how do you use your own experiences to create your characters? Star Wars is a galaxy of extremes -- rage kills, love conquers all, courage leads a single man against a planet-killing station. Most of us simply don't have experience in this sort of thing.
In the Star Wars galaxy, moral balance often hangs on the presence or absence of "dark" emotions, or at least on the question of whether or not one acts on them. Because of this, it's sometimes necessary to not tell the reader directly if your character is feeling angry, fearful, or aggressive. After all, your character may not be fully aware that he or she is acting out of rage. You need to show it, so that your audience can see what the character does not.
Realistic portrayal of emotions is a very effective way to do this. Maybe you've never come close to throttling someone you were interrogating, but nearly everyone has had experience with frustration. For myself, I always feel it in my hands, which is certainly useful in the scene in question, and, as far as I know, not a cliché. I gave it to Vader, and pushed it to its irrational extreme, imagining what it would be like to lose internal control of that, and have no external controls (like size or law) to stop me.
The use of fire imagery is a cliché when dealing with anger, but it's a cliché because heat is involved in the emotion. The trick is not necessarily to never use a familiar image, but to make that image your own. How does the fire manifest itself? I chose to use the pinwheel, because it shoots off sparks, catching everything around it, and because it is strangely hypnotic and weirdly beautiful... an attraction of the Dark Side emotion. It also is a very visual image, and in my experience, there's a visual element to anger.
Does that mean it's the way it always should be written? Of course not. The way someone else feels anger may be entirely different, and even the same person's anger may have different faces. What about cold anger? Or the kind of anger that just makes you want to sit down in the middle of the room and cry? Or righteous anger?
And what about love? How many different ways can a person feel love? I don't mean platonic vs. romantic; I mean, is it a nice cozy fireplace, or a well-lit house with locked doors, that you look into from the frozen world outside? Is it a tidal wave or an artesian well? Poets have always used metaphors for human emotion, not just because they make for lovely language, but because they often communicate an idea more clearly and succinctly than plain language or any other literary device.
Jealousy? Anxiety? Tenderness? Comfort? How do those emotions feel to you, and how can you apply that knowledge to a character? Emotions are complex and fascinating to write about, and adding the specificity of individual experience really draws the reader in.
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Date posted: 2/19/2002 12:41:17 AM
Yes! Well written, FernWithy. This article really struck a chord with me. This is exactly how I /try/ to write, it's how I write best, it's actually what I find easiest. Sometimes it can be a limitation, though- handling emotions I don't often feel myself is hard for me, and getting inside a character's head becomes a strange and sometimes scary experience. Some types of character I know I write badly- bullies, for instance- because the related emotions are something I don't have memories of to call upon.
Author: Zal Taur
Date posted: 2/19/2002 4:46:01 AM
Zal Taur's Comments:
You demonstrate the tools of the trade with a master's skill, FernWitty. I will reference this article between rewrites.
Date posted: 2/19/2002 11:27:59 AM
A very succinct and useful article, one that touches at the very heart of what draws me into a story. If an author can make me experience what the character is feeling, I come away satisfied. This is such a critical aspect of character development -- I hope all new and aspiring writers take note.
Author: Kenneth MacFarlane
Date posted: 3/8/2002 3:05:06 PM
Kenneth MacFarlane's Comments:
Just want to say I found this very useful to read it's helped me when trying to write about my characters emotions and expressions.
Thanks for taking the time to write that article
Date posted: 12/3/2012 9:37:30 PM
I was strcuk by the honesty of your posting
Date posted: 12/6/2012 4:42:30 AM
Thanks for helping me to see tihgns in a different light.
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