Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Once More, With Feeling: Writing Emotionally Strong Characters

By Bonnie Randall 

Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)

I recently finished reading an excellent novel; the setting was unusual and drawn with such authentic detail I was captivated. The mystery was just the right shade of murky, and the atmosphere! Wow. I am sure I have never read a book that was able to stay within such a dark and dismal tone from wire to wire. It was so well done that I was shocked, actually, at how the protagonist completely lost me. Deeply flawed and saddled with (atypical) horrors from her past, this character struggled through every situation and I wanted, so badly, to root for her, but…she had one range of emotion: dreary. She was dreary when she worked. Dreary when she discovered clues. Dreary when other characters tried—valiantly—to befriend her. She was dreary when she made love.

I reflected a long time on why she just didn’t fly for me; after all, she was extraordinarily interesting and absolutely a character we’d all kill to have created, she was deeply layered with experiences and flaws and talents and thoughts. And every single thing that happened to her could easily account for the way she was and yet…yet my suspension of disbelief just couldn’t buy her. But why? It drove me crazy and I thought I was being unreasonably critical until a remembered quote summed it up. Remember the old movie Sling Blade? Billy Bob Thornton’s simple-minded character, Karl Childers, made the following statement about the deformed newborn brother his floozy mother left to die, defending the tiny mite’s right to live despite what would be vast limitations: “He still would have laughed sometimes,” said Karl.


He still would have laughed sometimes. Because everyone, no matter how damaged, broken, or flawed, will nonetheless have moments of joy and wonder and fun. Or anger, disbelief, and disappointment. Human beings experience a spectrum of emotions regardless of their circumstances—and that was why the character in the aforementioned novel fell flat for me. For all her damage and emotional disabilities, she in turn lacked realistic dimension because she never stepped out of the monochromatic mood she was in. Ever. And that’s not only unrealistic, it is impossible.

As a writer it made me think. Which characters did I have who were:
  • Zany yet never show a glimmer of solemnity.
  • Gruff yet never reveal any penchant for tenderness or a vulnerable moment.
  • Taciturn without experiencing even a sentence that shows them have fun
  • Sad, as the character above, yet the reader never learns what might make them smile

Can you think of any other examples—perhaps from your own work or a piece of fiction you’ve read?

How about the opposite example—a character who is deeply drawn as being _____ (fill in the blank) whose mood tenor becomes even more glaring because they have the odd moment of antithesis?

’Cause after all, I don’t think the character in question needs to be all over the map with feelings—but I do think they need to look like someone who is more than a robot, yet less like an Average Joe (or Josephine, respectively). Heck, even Voldemort laughed the odd time (albeit over things that made gallows humor look like appropriate dinner conversation. But still)

Bottom line: emotionally tone-deaf characters are not human, and characters need to be authentic in order for readers to connect with them in a way that will make them want to hang out for 300-or so pages of prose.

Discussion? Thoughts?

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About Divinity & The Python

Divinity - Where deception and desire both hide in the dark...

The Cards Forecast Work

Shaynie Gavin is so much more than the sexy siren who mixes cocktails at The Python. A carpenter with a business plan, Shaynie is trying to amass enough funds to launch her own dream - Divinity, a place where up-cycled furniture from the past is sold alongside Tarot readings forecasting the future - and all in a setting that could not be more perfect: a former funeral parlor. Shaynie's belief that Divinity is attuned with the passions, the loves, and even the lies of its departed souls, allow her to feel satisfied when the cards she draws there reveal Wands, the Tarot's symbol for work. And yet...Shaynie would be so grateful if the Tarot would also, just once, illuminate a Hellnight from her past. A lost evening whose scars still slither over her skin, Hellnight haunts Shaynie. Yet when she calls the question of that chilling evening into her deck...

The Cards Forecast Love

...and love appears in the form of pro hockey star Cameron Weste. Weste is haunted by scars and superstitions of his own, and he wants Shaynie's Tarot to answer far deeper questions than she first guesses this sexy Lothario to be capable of. Who knew Weste was this intense? The Tarot, apparently. And yet...

The Cards Forecast The Devil

When Cameron Weste lands in her life, a stalker surfaces too, dropping clues to a connection between Shaynie, Cameron, and her lost, brutal Hellnight. Suddenly every card warns of deception, and nowhere feels safe. Shaynie and Cameron have to fight for their love - and their lives - as The Devil, their stalker, is determined to turn the Death Card for them both.


  1. I guess there's always one exception. The episode where Star Trek had Spock laugh was just so... wrong. His one emotion was looking puzzled and we loved him for it.

    Otherwise I agree with you human character one notes are tedious.

    1. "Spock Laughed" could well be as strong a title as "Atlas Shrugged" ;)

  2. I totally agree, Bonnie. I finished a book last night by a well-known author that is the opposite of the one you described. Despite a tragic history, the woman was zany and fun. She cared deeply about others and used her own experiences to help them find happiness. What's not to like? And at first it was inspiring that she had overcome so much and still always (key word) found something to be "glad" about. Wasn't that why we loved Polyanna?

    I never cared about her, and it gets worse - I never cared about the other characters. They had tragedy themselves but she always found that something for them to be glad about and they recovered before I could be sad for or identify with them.

    I did keep reading until the end only because I wanted to see her suffer - big time suffering. In fact, I might have liked the book if it had ended with her crying herself to sleep in a Bronx back alley.

    There were a few humorous moments - but I can get that from the Sunday funnies. I did enjoy that I made a hole-in-one when I hurled the thing into the trash over a coffee table, couch, and recliner.

    Upside (something to be glad about?): It emphasized what Janice and others tell us: we must let our beloved characters experience some intense (another key word) conflict - or who cares.

    Upside two: My MC was headed in the same direction. It's so true that we must read, read, read. We learn so much from the writing of others….

    (Sorry for the rant; I feel better now.)

    1. ermergerd!!! The relentless Susie Sunshine Syndrome. Sadly I know actual *people* like that. (I always secretly suspect them of dropping acid that makes unicorns and puppy dogs appear before their eyes. And glitter. Lots of glitter)

  3. This was one of the major problems with the first novel I ever wrote. Great post.

  4. Replies
    1. That was supposed to be in reference to the "Spock Laughed" "Atlas Shrugged" comparison... not sure how it ended up down here!

    2. LOL!! Every one in a while I am funny...looking ;)

  5. This post has made me go back to one of my major characters and take a damn good look at him........thank you!!

  6. Unless, of course, your character has Alexithymia...