Nobody feels one way all the time, or even one emotion at a time. There are a myriad of emotions floating around in our heads at any given moment. We might be happy for a friend who just got a promotion, but also jealous because we were passed over for one. Or thrilled for a sister marrying the man of her dreams, but worried because he’s been married four times already.
Characters are no different. When you approach a scene, try thinking about the different emotions they might be feeling. Just like plot layers, think about the emotional layers of your story and how you can use those to deepen the scene and connect with the reader. Ask yourself:
What is the protagonist's primary emotion for this scene?
There’s often one feeling or mood that takes precedence--the emotion that’s driving the protagonist to act in that scene. This will typically determine the kind of scene it is. Fear = a suspenseful scene, lust = a love scene, sad = a reflective scene (but not limited to these of course). If you have a dangerous chase scene and no one is scared or excited, the scene will likely lack tension. A touching family moment without love can feel hollow or even like the characters are simply going through the motions.
Conflict tip: To add more conflict or tension to the scene, look for ways to make the protagonist feel the opposite emotion of the primary mood.
Stakes tip: To raise the stakes of the scene, look for ways to add fear, worry, or apprehension about something in the scene.
Character tip: To flesh out the character, look for ways to add in inappropriate emotion that shows another side of the character.
(Here's more on how emotions can affect a character's behavior)
What are the protagonist’s secondary emotions?
No matter what major emotion is driving the character, odds are there’s more going on under the surface. What are the other issues are they struggling with? Is there anything keeping them from fully experiencing the primary emotion, such as fear keeping them from falling for the right person?
Conflict tip: How might this secondary emotion cause a problem with the goal or the scene?
Stakes tip: How might this secondary emotion cause the protagonist to make a mistake?
Character tip: How might this secondary emotion reveal an aspect of the character?
(Here's more on providing emotional clarity)
What are the protagonist’s conflicting emotions?
Stories are about conflict, so there’s a good chance your characters are feeling conflicted over something in any given scene. Where are their feelings ambivalent? Where do they emotionally disagree with other characters in the scene? What shouldn't they be feeling, but do anyway?
Conflict tip: How might this emotion deepen the protagonist's internal conflict?
Stakes tip: How might this emotion cause the protagonist to fail?
Character tip: How might this emotional conflict cause the protagonist to make the wrong choice?
(Here's more on how character moods can help create a better scene)
What are the protagonist’s hidden emotions?
People feel things they’d rather not all the time. We try to suppress envy or anger or even love. Sometimes we don't even know we're doing it. Is there anything your characters are trying to hide? Anything they’re trying not to feel? This is a good spot for those unconscious goals or feelings to leak in.
Conflict tip: How might the hidden emotions foreshadow later events or problems?
Stakes tip: How might the hidden emotions cause the protagonist to react in a way that adversely affects her?
Character tip: How might the hidden emotions hint at or show what the protagonist's character arc or emotional journey will be?
(Here's more on conveying emotions in a scene)
What are the other characters in the scene feeling?
Your protagonist isn't the only one who gets to show a little emotion. If there are other people in the scene, what are they feeling? What are they trying to hide or pretending to feel? This is a great way to drop subtle hints or add tension to a scene if there’s clearly an issue no one is talking about.
Conflict tip: What clues might the protagonist pick up on (or not) that show another character doesn't agree with her--and that this might be a problem?
Stakes tip: Where might an emotional non-protagonist character cause a problem or make a problem worse?
Character tip: Where might added emotions show a deeper side to a secondary character?
(Here's more on describing emotions)
Are there any forced emotions?
Sometimes a character is trying hard to pretend to feel a certain way, even when they feel nothing. It might be out of compassion (little white lies to spare someone's feelings) or life-saving (pretending to still be the friend of the person you just discovered betrayed you). Is this a scene where your characters are faking it in any way?
Conflict tip: How might this faked emotion spark the opposite effect than intended?
Stakes tip: How might this faked emotion make things more personal for the protagonist?
Character tip: How might this faked emotion become real, either in this scene or later in the story (bonus conflict if this causes unforeseen troubles)?
(Here's more on alternative ways to describe emotions)
Emotional layers are also a useful way to weave in subplots or character arcs. Even if the plot portion of the scene isn’t related to a subplot, the emotion layer can braid it in and give that scene multiple layers of complexity. A character who’s struggling with a blackmailer might act suspicious or distracted during a critical meeting at work and lose an important client (and maybe the job). Happiness or love might make someone oblivious to dangers they’d normally spot right away.
How a character feels determines how they act, and how they act helps drive the plot. So don’t just think external when crafting your novel. Think about what’s going on internally as well.
Do you think about your character’s emotional state when you start a scene? How much do the emotional layers drive your plot? Do you know going in how they feel or do you discover that as the scene unfolds?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound