By Sharla Rae
Let’s face it, mining for the best expression of emotions whether it’s body language, gut reactions, internalization or dialogue can be like panning for gold. A lot of useless grit is sloshed around before you hit pay dirt.
Picture this: You’re sitting at your computer; the sun is shining through the window and you’re feeling happy vibes.
Then scrolling to page 49 of your book, you realize you left a very angry Zelda stranded knee-deep in alligators at the office. Worse, because you, the writer are Zelda’s alter ego, you have to ditch your good day and feel what she feels . . . on paper at least.
At one of our OCC RWA chapter meetings, an actress spoke about conveying character types to an audience. Although female, her body slipped into the physical persona of a cocky young male. It was amazing to watch. She lead with her hips, took center stage, and mimed puffing on a cigarette. Her grin reeked male smugness. Instead of a young and attractive female, I saw a cock-sure punk,
What an actress does on stage
is exactly what I want to do with the written word.
So where can a writer dig up these emotions? Once we know the emotion, to what degree should it be dramatized?
I did some research on methods used by actors and discovered their tools crossover to writers.
At Actor’s Exchange where actors, directors etc. exchange industry info, it was suggested that actors must first be aware of “all” facets of emotions. In other words, emotions don’t happen in a vacuum.
4 Basic Things A Writer Or Actor Must Know Before Conveying Emotion
- What is the inciting incident that triggers emotion.
- Identify the emotion.
- What is the body’s physical/gut reaction to the emotion. [Not body language but how the emotion makes your body feel]
- What did the face or body do? (body & facial language)
Now that we know what we need to convey emotion, how do we do it?
One method used by actors is called, The Methods or emotional memory technique of acting. This amounts to recalling personal emotions and what they felt like and then portraying that to the audience.
A second method for an actor is to portray character emotions by Accessing Physical Reactions To Emotions. Actors can bring themselves to the edge of tears by triggering a yawn which brings tears. This won’t work on paper but writers can access and write physical reaction.
BUT! There are drawbacks.
Both methods use personal, recalled feelings and reactions. They may not be in keeping with the personality of the character. (See my blog: Keep Characters True To Themselves)
Actor’s Exchange suggests that the best method to show emotion is to know the play/story, and the character.Duh! Sound familiar?
So here’s my version of how it works:
1] Be the character: Jump into his skin. The character is a combination of your experienced emotions, who the “character” is, his motivations and his situation.
One article I found, Acting Emotions by Elly A. Konijn called this a “double consciousness,” the remembered emotion is the writers/actor’s but they are aware of the character’s circumstance and personality.
2] Allow the story contents to “trigger” the emotions you need.
We all know and understand anger but there are varying degrees and ways of expressing it. The story’s content and the triggering event determine how a particular personality expresses an emotion.
Concerning anger you might ask questions like these:
- Is the character merely irritated or are they in a full-blown, red-in-the-face rage?
- Is this personality a show-all, tell-all, or are they withdrawn?
- Does the emotion make them want to throw up or are they so tough, nothing much affects them?
- Does the triggering event require a mind-blowing reaction or a minor blink of the eye?
Writers have to dig deep, find the gold and turn it into an emotional jewel.
For me, body language, dialogue and introspection are the easiest expressions of emotion. It’s the gut reactions that throw me. For this reason I’m including a list of possibilities. And yes, some examples cross over into the other emotional forms.
This list just scratches the surface so I hope you’ll comment and add some of your own ideas. Be sure to see the links at the bottom of the blog.
Emotion As A Physical/Gut Reaction
- How To Monitor Your Emotions and Increase Emotional Awareness. While this site was focused monitoring your personal emotions and learning your triggers, it did have some interesting suggestions, including a chart that can be easily adapted to promote writer awareness of how emotions are triggered and expressed.
- Portraying Emotion With The Body. This is another site for actors and it’s worth stopping in. This article says the actor must study physiologically and everything that happens to an individual when he experiences any given situation. If an actor dies of freezing to death his actions will be different than if he’s dying of say a gunshot wound. A list with helpful examples is given.
- Actors’ Exchange: A font of information from people in theater. The link in the body of this blog takes you to the definitions I talked about. This link takes you to the main page.
- How To Portray a Dramatic Character: A repeat of points mentioned in this blog but worth a look.
- Acting Tips for Emotional Scenes: Comprehensive tips that translate nicely to writing tips.
- Also see links on my blog, Body Language: An Artistic Tool and Keep Characters True To Themselves.
- Jennifer Hudson Taylor’s blog: Showing Physical Emotional Response In Fiction
Let’s talk. How do you mine for character emotions?