Add Emotional Depth to Characters

Character Symptoms: emotionless, bland, and uninteresting

Imagine a critique partner reads your first chapter and says:

  • Your characters don’t show much emotion.
  • The protagonist is kind of flat.
  • What’s his name? The main guy. He needs more backstory.
  • I don’t have much sympathy for the main character.
  • Who is the protagonist?

DIAGNOSIS: Your character is not relatable

It’s time for a transplant of personality, humanity, emotion, and agency.

Character’s Emotional Reaction to the Plot

Characters should show emotion in how they react to situations confronting them in the plot. Different personalities react differently, but an author should make it impossible for major characters to do nothing, to relax, to have minor characters solve big problems, or to procrastinate.

Reaction to a stressful situation MUST include CALIBRATED emotion. Not too much, not too little. If the character does not know what is going on, they find out. If they can’t do something, they don’t give up, they investigate the possibilities.

When faced with calamity, characters may fight, get angry, file a suit, write a memo, call a priest, feel sad, become anxious, have bad dreams, think about better times, stay awake, or show other emotional manifestations at a correct level for the situation. In essence, they REACT emotionally. They do not go about their business and wait for another wave of the plot to wash over them.

A common mistake is to narrate emotion too quickly—write a few MORE sentences about the character’s thoughts and fears. Above all, show and don’t tell. Writing, “He felt angry,” is telling. Look at the picture of the soldier. Write a word picture of his emotion, what has happened, what is he worried about, has this happened before, what is he trained to do, what is he likely to do, and is a friend involved. The character should become predictable—his personality and backstory point toward a typical response. If a character grows or changes, the emotional response should change SLOWLY over many chapters.

What does “Relatable” mean?

According to Webster’s online dictionary it means able to be related to: possible to understand, like, or have sympathy for because of similarities to oneself or one’s own experiences.

Humans understand emotions of other humans by “mirroring” what they see, hear, and read. If you see another person with the corners of the mouth curving up, the teeth slightly showing, and the eyes slightly squinted, what is the emotion? Do those things yourself, mirror those things, and you will innately feel the emotion. Happiness.

A famous book, The Emotion Thesaurus by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman, can help authors show the gestures and expressions of different emotions. By including descriptions of gestures and facial expressions you communicate emotion without overtly telling the name of the emotion.

Of course, expanded internal monologue or thoughts, can make emotions much more clear and strong.

How to make characters likable?

Kayelle Allen, another member of Speculative Fiction Writers, recently wrote a post “Creating Characters Readers Love.” As a very successful science fiction author, her characters express high levels of emotion. The post is worth reading.

The search for how to make likable characters has fascinated many authors. Here are a few common suggestions:

  • Likable characters are smart, passionate, kind, and willing to struggle.
  • Such characters are strongly motivated by something they want.
  • Likeable characters should have conflicting emotions and limits.
  • Authors should provide cogent character backstory, but not all at once.
  • Characters should have a few flaws and make mistakes (so they seem human).
  • Self-awareness of flaws can make characters seem more likable.

Response to a bad critique about bland characters

It’s not impossible to fix the unlikable and unemotional character. The fix is to write more, to add passion, motivation, and backstory. This is different from line-editing and requires full attention to the job of inserting emotional details. For the reader, the effort pays huge dividends.

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