Emotions: Let Your Characters Feel

When co-writing with people, I find a lot of people prefer to skim the emotions of a scene—especially the most emotional scenes of the story! They tell me, “The character didn’t want me to dwell on it.” I find that curious, but for me the opposite is true. The characters want to be remembered. They want to make the reader feel their pain for all its worth. They want to make the reader cry or scream out in denial just as much as the author does.

What I have discovered though about those people who withhold emotions from a scene, they are usually very withdrawn individuals in real life, and they’re uncomfortable showing that much emotion. It’s almost as if they don’t want that emotion to be identified with them. Is this wrong? No. A lot of writers are introverts who prefer not to show their emotions, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, there is a distinct difference between the author and the character. The character is not the author. People are not going to read the story and see you in it unless you specifically write yourself into the story.

Why is it so important for us to include authentic emotion in our story? Emotions are our way of connecting with the fictional world. We can’t really experience their adventures or completely relate to them in all their endeavors because we might not be super assassins or dragon-slaying medieval knights or vampires or werewolves or an orphan who’s meant to save the world. Our characters’ stories are often out-of-this-world, and by all rights, their world should be as foreign and strange as any country in this world. However, it’s not that strange. Why? Because we can all relate to the character’s denial when something bad happens, his stress as he tries to decide between two difficult choices, his determination when he finally sets his mind to the task, and his relief when he overcomes all those obstacles as well as any sorrows he might have encountered along the way.

Emotion is a universal language. We can all relate to it. Even if our books are translated into hundreds of different languages that we don’t even understand, we’d still be able to see the emotions on our readers faces as they read. We can relate to their smiles, their frowns, their widened eyes, quickened breath, then sighs of relief. We can laugh with them and cry with them.

If we refuse to let our writing be saturated with emotion in the proper time and place, then we deny our readers the opportunity to express themselves with that emotion. In today’s world, especially in the Western world, openly expressing emotions is frowned upon, but when those emotions aren’t yours but someone else’s (rather a character’s), it’s more acceptable. That’s why we can go to the movies and laugh or cry (though we will try to hide our tears) or scream in denial. When reading a book, outwardly it might appear as though we’re some of the most boring people in the world, but inwardly, we’re on an emotional roller coaster. Sometimes we might sigh or wince or cringe. Other times we might throw the book down or across the room in anger or disgust or disbelief, or we might let out a shout, “No!” or even mutter under our breath, “Don’t do it—don’t! Stupid, stupid, stupid!” Then we look around and realize people are staring—if they’re not plugged into their iPods. At the end of the day (or the book), we feel human because we actually felt emotion rather than going through the mundane day of work, family drama, friends drama, school, and so forth.

This is why it is important to keep emotions in your writing. “But how do I do that? How do I know that I’ve put emotion in? How do I show emotion when you’re supposed to feel it?” There’s no secret formula to this—there never is any secret formula to anything regarding writing. However, let me show you an example. I wrote this piece merely for this blog post. It was the first thing I could think of to demonstrate the difference being restricted in use of emotion versus honing in on the emotion.

She was washing the breakfast dishes when the men came. When she opened the door and saw the military men standing there, she knew why they were here. Her heart began to break before they spoke a word, but soon they left, and she closed the door and slid down to the floor, pulled up her knees and sobbed. Her husband was never coming home.

She scrubbed the breakfast dishes, frustrated that she had left the scrambled eggs on the plate too long, and now the remnant of eggs were caked to the plate. As she scrubbed hard, she knew she was running late and might just have to let the plate soak while she was running her errands today.

The dog barking outside caught her attention, and she lifted her gaze out the kitchen window to see anyone crossing the lawn. Not seeing anyone, she leaned further and looked to the left and saw a military vehicle in her driveway, but she couldn’t see the occupants.

Frowning, she snatched up a towel and began drying her hands as she approached the front door. Through the distorted glass of the door, she saw the silhouette of two men with proper stances, and the sight of them made her heart sink. Her steps slowed, but she pushed herself forward.

Her husband and she often discussed all the ‘what ifs’ if he didn’t come back from fighting. She didn’t want to be caught off guard but rather be prepared, so he informed her of all the different protocols.

This was one of them, and there was only one reason for it.

The doorbell chimed, and she drew in a sharp breath, straightened her posture, and pulled back her shoulders as she folded the towel in her hands and smoothed out her dress. Finally, with shaking hands, she reached for the doorknob. She took another deep breath, and then she opened the door. She had intended to open it all the way but found herself only able to open it slightly—as if to barricade herself from the bad news.

“Mrs. Whitaker?” the older of the two men asked, and Jennet Whitaker nodded. “We’re sorry to inform you—” and that was all Jennet heard. She knew the speech they would give—her husband died in service overseas. They couldn’t give her details, likely didn’t know the details themselves yet, but they apologized and said if there was anything they could do to help, they were there for her.

She tried to smile her thanks, but her throat was too tight with tears. She knew how uncomfortable men got when they saw a woman crying, so she whispered a weak, “Thank you,” then gently closed the door and rested her forehead against the wood of the door as she closed her eyes.

Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, and she couldn’t stop them. She turned her back to the door and slid down to the floor, covering her mouth with her hands as sobs overwhelmed her. She tried to keep quiet in case the men hadn’t left her doorstep yet. She didn’t want them to hear her even though due to the nature of their job, they had seen women break down and cry various ways, but too many people depended on her to be strong. They couldn’t even hear a whisper of her breaking. She needed to be strong.

But alone in her house, on the floor at her front door, she hugged her knees close to her chest, buried her face in her knees, and cried.

Together they were going to change the world, but now he left her alone—again.


The difference here is obvious. The first version is merely a paragraph long, and it is more ‘telling’ than ‘showing’. Yes, a reader with similar experience could relate to it, but most readers want to know how is this specific character going to react to that specific situation. We’re all different, and maybe someone else’s way of coping could be an example or a warning for us.

Not only do drawn-out emotional scenes help us understand our own emotions, but in these scenes we may discover something about the characters that we would never have known otherwise.

Am I saying that all characters should be overly emotional at all times? No. Sometimes the lack of emotion—especially in the face of a crisis—speaks volumes of a character. However, you must acknowledge at one point or another in one way or another each character (the human ones at least) must express themselves emotionally. They can bottle it up for so long and pretend they don’t care. They can seem to be absolutely robotic and without feeling, but there will be something that will slip in under their guard—something they’ve always tried to accept, change, or ignore, but it keeps bothering them.

Sooner or later they will snap. They might lash out in a moment of anger, and that is all it is—a moment, and then it’s passed. Or they might be the kind who must go behind closed, locked doors all alone where no one can hear them, and they might cry out in frustration or hurt, but soon they compose themselves.

The longer they don’t express themselves or release that emotion, the more it builds, and such pent-up emotions do cause a strain on the mind and body of the individual—stress, depression, lack of sleep, lack of motivation, short-tempered, and so forth. This can work to your benefit in the story, but sooner or later the characters should be allowed to expressed themselves emotionally. It doesn’t have to be a huge emotional scene but rather a small private passing moment.

Remember, we read in order to escape and to experience things we could never do in our lifetime, and one way to really connect with your reader is that emotional connection. The emotion is the magic that truly brings simple words on paper to life and makes them memorable.

Also, if you’re an introvert and a very private person who prefers to show as little emotion as possible at all times, just because your characters experience bouts of emotion doesn’t mean your readers are going to see you in the story and judge you. Instead, they are going to be so caught up with the story and everything the characters are going through, they won’t see you at all, so there’s no need to worry about it. Let the characters feel what they feel and let them express themselves in the way that they would. Yes, they’re a part of you, but they’re not you, and there’s a freedom in that.


The Etiquette of Readers Part 2: Beta Readers

Last week we identified and discussed the role of Casual Readers. Now we’re going to focus on the more popular role of a Beta Readers.

While Casual Readers tend not to be writers, Beta Readers are usually on the path to becoming editors and are writers themselves. First thing to recognize about Beta Readers is there is not a one size fits all. You may not agree with someone’s method of critiquing because they’re looking at it all wrong, and they’re always negative, and you just can’t seem to do anything right. If this is the case, try getting another Beta Reader, but always do a trial run with them first. Send a sample of your writing, see how they critique. If you two seem to get along, then work from there.

With Beta Readers, it is up to them whether or not you send your work as a complete manuscript at one time or chapter by chapter. This is something the two of you must discuss. Simply be aware, the more you send, the longer it will take to get anything back to you. It is also important to remember that you should have revised and edited your work at least once before sending it to a Beta Reader.

With a Beta Reader, it is important to understand one thing: their job is to tear your work to shreds. Yes, this is difficult. It’s hard. It’s painful. However, it is important. This is also preparing you for when your work must go before an editor. It’s helping you understand your work better and develop thick skin.

Now, on this topic, there is something very important to realize. If you have people read your work, and they stop at a certain point and can’t read further, you must investigate—not only where they stopped but from the beginning all the to that specific point. Look at description, dialogue, character development, scene setting, plot development, writing style. Are the characters cliché? Are they too perfect? Are they relatable? Is there a moral issue in the story that’s causing the problem?

Most people won’t tell you why they didn’t like the story because they don’t know. Some might know, but if you’re stubborn and stuck in your way when it comes to writing, they’re not going to be very honest with you because it takes a lot of time and energy to explain to you the problem.

I don’t volunteer to read anyone’s writing anymore. If I can’t finish a story, I find out exactly why that is, and it’s usually more than one issue, but this one issue brings up this other issue which breeds another one and so on and so forth, and the writer is left thinking, “I can’t write!” And I’m respond, “No, you can! You’re very good at it, and you wrote an entire story which is an awesome accomplishment!” but then I’m lost at how to encourage them to step back, have faith, and tackle things one at a time.

If you’re confident in your writing ability and believe the story you wrote is important for the world to know, then nothing can tear you down. Yes, there are people out there who want nothing more than to completely rip writers to shreds. It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into something or the importance of certain elements and specific scenes, they don’t care. I don’t understand those people, but when I encounter those people, I don’t bother to justify my writing or explain myself. They have a right to their own opinion, and no matter how many times I revise my work, it won’t make them happy, so I just nod and tell them, “Thank you. I will take it into consideration,” but then I’ll go back to my story and set the criticism before the characters and listen to them protest loudly, “Why would I do that?! What would my motives be? That makes absolutely no sense. No, no, and no!” And they cross their arms, threatening me with Writer’s Block if I even attempt to revise in the suggested manner.

This is why you must know why you wrote everything in the story, why it’s important to see how the pieces connect.

However, there are some unofficial guidelines we can all use.

WRITERS, if you give your work to a Beta Reader to critique, expect them to do several things:

  1. They will read your story from beginning to end in a timely manner.

  2. They will make notes on everything that jumps out at them.

  3. They will ask questions.

  4. They will point out errors.

  5. They will not correct or change anything for you.

  6. They are not your brainstorming buddies (unless agreed upon otherwise).

  7. If a Beta Reader cannot complete your novel for lack of time or simply disinterest in the story, you should not be offended but find another Beta Reader.

  8. You must remain professional.

  9. Honesty is key.

BETA READERS, if you volunteer to read someone’s work to critique it, there are a few things you must recognize:

  1. You are obligated to read their entire work and critique it in a timely fashion.

  2. If you cannot complete their work, you must inform the writer of this and explain why.

  3. Do not volunteer to read someone’s work out of pity especially when you’re disinterested in their story.

  4. Look for positive aspects of the story as well as the negative.

  5. You must remain professional.

  6. Honesty is key.

Now notice, I said Writer and Beta Reader should ‘remain professional’ and that ‘honesty is key’. WRITERS, your story may be your baby, but when you’ve reached this stage of your story, you must distance yourself from it and become professional about it. This makes any negativity toward your writing easier to accept and to view objectively rather than subjectively. BETA READERS, being professional while you work allows you to do your work properly without fear of the author lashing out at you and blaming you for your criticism. Even if that were to happen, you can take everything in stride and carry on.

Honesty is the most important element in this process. Writers must be straightforward and honest with their Beta Readers of what they expect from them and when they need the story’s critique completed and returned to them—set a deadline. Beta Readers need to be able to say ‘no’ when they have too much on their plate or when they feel their style of critiquing will not work well with a specific author. Beta Readers should be able to express their opinion without too much concern of how the writer will react since the writer should react responsibly.

Are these hard and fast rules? No. They’re completely unofficial, but they could help to eliminate stress and frustration on everyone’s part. You may approach this subject any way you want.

To summarize: while you are writing or in the middle of revising and editing but need encouragement, find a Casual Reader (or several) to be your cheerleader. Once you’ve revised several times and are now ready for the next step, find a Beta Reader and understand everything is about to get serious, so be professional, and keep honesty between the two of you. This will help you face the harsh realities of publishing.


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The Etiquette of Readers Part 1: Casual Readers

First, to clarify the title. The ‘readers’ implied are not the readers who pick your books up off the shelf and read. The readers I mean are those who work closely with you prior to publication. They are friends and family you let read your book in the process of writing it and revising and editing it, and they are those who will critique your work prior to you sending it to any publisher or editor. So I am not directing this to anyone picking up a book to read it for the first time. Everything I’m talking about is before the book is even published. Now, with that clear, let’s move on.

For writers, it is unnerving when our VERY first readers read our books before it’s even published. We might have written the entire story without telling a soul what it was about, or we might have told everyone we encountered about our story, but now is the time of reckoning—the time to see what someone truly thinks of it. Now it is time for the story to stand up and speak for itself—be the brilliant story you claimed it to be. Like you letting go of your child’s bike as they attempt to ride without the training wheels, you have faith they’ll find their balance and their freedom in being independent, but at the same time, you’re worried they might falter and fall and scrape their knee. Even if they do fall, you know you can’t rush to them and cuddle them and carry them into the house. They have to grow used to the pain of falling down, and they have to learn to get back up again. It’s part of growing up. The same thing applies to our writing.

Once we’ve written the story, we trust it’s ready for anything, but at the same time we’re terrified of being told that the ideas in our head are not entertaining, enlightening, inspiring, or original. We hate being informed our writing is cliché or boring or that people just don’t ‘get it’, so what are we supposed to do?

Let’s define some terms and then go into detail.

First up, we have the Casual Reader. This would be what I described in my previous post when you let a friend or family member read your story while you’re working on it (especially doing the revision/editing process). Their primary purpose is to be a cheerleader but also to wave a red flag when they’re confused at a point. You can let a Casual Reader read your work as soon as you finished the first draft or while you’re revising and editing your work.

Beta Reader: This is the individual you give your work to when you are ready for some real critiquing. You should have already done a revision or two or three and edited it as best you can. These are the people who are looking for inconsistencies, grammar errors, plot holes, and they will challenge your decision to have this scene unfold that way or that character to do that and not this. A lot of Beta Readers have the inclination of becoming editors, so they’re using this time as practice.

So let’s go into more detail about each kind of reader. Let’s start with the Casual Reader. Why let people read your work before it’s even completed and absolutely polished? One of the most irritating things I’ve discovered as a published author is working hard on a book, get it published, and the only response I get are vague like, “Oh it was a good story.” Now, to be fair, some are more definite in their responses, but still it’s easier to say “It was great,” rather than go into details as to why you absolutely loved all 600 pages of the book. Meanwhile, I labored hard to work that twist in Chapter 5, to kill that character in Chapter 10, to show the emotional and fundamental but silent moment in Chapter 26—doesn’t anyone appreciate it? I almost killed your favorite character, and all I get is, “Oh, that was nice.”?

Your Casual Reader will give you feedback you need to motivate you along the way. They will be your fans. You might not be famous with thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook, but these few devoted readers will make you feel like the best writer in the world—not because they’re trying to make you feel good, but because they really enjoy the story and can’t contain themselves.

When you let Casual Readers read your work, don’t overwhelm them by sending in the entire story at one time but rather a chapter at a time. Letting someone read the story as a whole is like watching a movie. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it’s all wrapped up nicely where it may or may not have a sequel. However, allowing people to read it only a chapter at a time is almost treating it like a TV show rather than a movie—you drag it out. They get really attached to the characters, and that’s exactly what you want.

Casual Readers will give you feedback such as this (taken from a Casual Reader of mine who has given me permission to share):

Oh my gosh that is so AWESOME!!!!!!!!!! I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT!!!!! 😀 I especially love the part when Vixen asked the guardian to hold her glove thing and she knocked him out. I cracked up laughing on that one.”

“Don’t make me cry you cannot make me cry I cannot cry STOP MAKING ME WANT TO CRRRRRYYYY!!!!!” :'(:'(:'(:'(:'(:'(:'(:'(:'(

Hahahahaha!!! This was hilarious! And surprising. You made me think that Ardden was going to be okay but who knows (except you) what’ll happen? I thought it awkward then hilarious when Lorrek found out Vixen and she disappeared so suddenly. And I so love it that everyone loves everyone yet they hate them so much.”

Finally I read it. I was so busy. I Love iiiiittttt!!!!! 😀 it kind of looks like Verddra is going to the good side, but you left a quote in there that Honroth said. Something about enemies. Anyway, it left me thinking that Verddra is acting good yet she isn’t.”

As you can observe, this kind of feedback is the best. It tells me in real time what my readers think and feel about characters, things they experience, and decisions they make. So if you want some responses from your readers, try sending it to them a chapter at a time and tell them in order to get the next chapter, they need to tell you what they think in detail of the chapter they read. This might not work for some readers because of time restraints, but communicate with them and see what works best.

Now, sometimes the Casual Reader will have questions, and that’s a good thing. Do not take offense or be discouraged when you get this kind of feedback. Remember, you’re letting the Reader read while you’re likely revising and editing, so you can always and honestly say, “It’s the rough draft.” In this context, errors to expected and forgiven. The Casual Reader is more like highlighting the AWESOME parts while tagging the vague parts. They are not the Beta Reader, so don’t expect them to give you too much detail as to what is wrong.

This is what you can expect from a Casual Reader. So, what kind of people are good Casual Readers? Not writers. I have about five Casual Readers, but only one is a writer of any kind. All others just enjoy reading. So find friends or family members who have the time to read, and ask if they’d be willing to read your story a chapter at a time.

I had fully intended for this to be one post discussing the Casual Reader and the Beta Reader, but as I wrote it, I realized it was getting long, so I’ve decided to split the two. Next week we will discuss the Etiquette for Beta Readers.


An Approach to Proofreading

All right, with this process of polishing our work, we’ve smoothed out any plot holes or cases of vanishing characters and fixed awkwardly worded sentences. We’ve determined whether every chapter, every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, and every word are absolutely necessary to the story. We’ve also considered grammar, punctuation, and looked for redundancy. So what’s next? Is it finally time to send it on to someone else to read?

Nope—not yet.

And yes, I heard you groan, but there’s one more thing you need to do—proofread. You can count on spellcheck for only so far, but you could have spelt the wrong word correctly. Say you wrote ‘strip’ when you meant ‘stripe’ or ‘strap’. Technically ‘strip’ is spelled correctly, so spellcheck can’t bring it to your attention because it doesn’t know it wasn’t the word you intended.

“Shouldn’t I have caught this when I went back to make sure every word was important to the story?” Yes, but there’s a chance you didn’t catch it because you weren’t looking for it, so that is why you must be patient and go back through it. It shouldn’t take nearly as long the revision and editing progresses did because you’re already done most of the heavy lifting.

Proofreading is also another opportunity to go back and look for any redundancy. You should have done this during the editing process, but it’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for it as you’re reviewing your work once more.

One thing you must understand when polishing your work. Most of the mistakes you make will likely take place during the polishing process. For instance, let’s say you have the following sentence: “John went to the store.” But during the editing process, you realized you used John’s name too much in that paragraph, so you decided to just say ‘he’ instead of ‘John’, so you write what you think is, “He went to the store.” However, you didn’t realize it, but you never took out the word ‘John’, so what it really reads is, “John he went to the store.”

Once while polishing up my historical fiction novel, I had the phrase, ‘Saladin’s army’, and I decided to change it to ‘his army’ instead. However, I backspaced only enough to erase the ‘s from ‘Saladin’ and ended up with ‘Saladin his army’, and nobody caught this small error until after the book was published! If you’re wondering why there are reprints of books, this is one of the reasons. How did that happen? Why didn’t I completely erase Saladin’s name while I was working on the sentence? To be honest, I don’t know. I have no idea how it happened, but it makes me want to do a palmface whenever I catch such a mistake in my own writing. So this happens to everyone, and you need to recognize that and look for it in your own work.

Another thing that needs to be examined is the punctuation. When you’re editing, you might change a statement to a question, but both punctuation marks are present, “It rained last night.?” Or you had omitted a word from the end of the sentence and never brought in the punctuation, “It rained last night .” Or punctuation might be completely missing.

It’s amazing how when you’re trying to fix something, you can actually cause more problems. It’s not that your writing is terrible or that you’re a horrible writer. This is reality, so you just need to expect it and take it one step at a time.

Now throughout all this, I kept saying not to show anyone your work, but let me define something for you. It’s one thing to let someone read in order to get confirmation that your story is interesting and even worth the headache of revision, editing, and proofreading, and it’s another thing to let someone read your work in order to be critiqued. If along the way while polishing your work, you just need that extra encouragement, find a friend who loves to read but won’t overwhelm you with criticism, and let him or her read it. Try sending the person a chapter at a time, allowing the person to give you feedback on that specific chapter before moving on to the next one. This way you’re motivated to keep working, and you won’t overwhelm your reader with a 200-600 page novel in their email.

Hopefully these last few posts have solidified the concept of revision, editing, and proofreading. Of course, others may have developed their own system of doing these, and they’re not wrong. If it works for them, that’s good. I have simply discovered most people aren’t sure where to begin the refining process, so I decided to present a few guidelines. Modify it to what works best for you, but understand the importance of delivering a sharp, clean, and polished manuscript to editor, agents, and publishers. They will love you if you make their work easier by doing most of the hard work yourself, and I hope you the very best in that regard!

Next week we’ll discuss the etiquette of beta reading and more on getting feedback from others.