Thursday, June 23, 2011

Watching out for the "Wrong" Emotion (also a Worldbuilding Post)

Yesterday my commenter Linda got me thinking when she talked about "standard emotional content" and said that "too much of the wrong emotions" can be bad for a story. She concluded, "The emotion has to be appropriate for what's happening in the scene and how the character is to be portrayed."

As a character-based writer, I have a hard time relating to the phrase "standard emotional content." However, it's easy enough for me to guess that it means people in a story feel what they are supposed to feel when they are supposed to feel it. They're being chased, I guess, so they feel panic, or they're doing X Y or Z so they need to feel this that or the other.

I certainly do suppose that if one sidetracks off the action into a navel-gazing emotional reverie that it would appear inappropriate. Needless to say, this is not what I do in my action sequences.

But what I'd rather think about today is what "the wrong emotion" might mean.

I suppose I could begin with the idea of not being in touch with one's characters. I think it's always valuable to be in touch with a character's mental states, and in fact this is the major reason why I write chronologically - because emotions and mental states tend to grow out of one another, and to concatenate.

When you're working in another world, particularly one with a different kind of social contract, I think it's worth spending extra time. Because in the worldbuilding context it's actually quite easy to end up with the "wrong" emotion, accidentally. I'm going to divide this into two different types of emotional errors: 1. errors of emotional type and 2. errors of degree.

Errors of emotional type occur when you're writing along and you have a social situation, and your character ends up feeling how an Earth resident would feel in that situation rather than how a native of your world would feel in that situation.

Think about how you feel in different social situations. The content of those social situations has a lot to say about what is an appropriate way to feel. What do you find comfortable and normal? What do you find embarrassing? Chances are people in your world won't quite agree, particularly depending on their social status relative to yours. A poor person won't probably feel comfortable speaking to a noble person at all, though they might feel perfectly comfortable addressing a group of peers.

In Varin, members of different castes have different emotional reactions to different situations. My noble boy Tagret would feel slighted if his mother didn't look at him when she talks to him; my servant-caste boy Aloran feels very uncomfortable if he is looked at by nobles at all, and prefers to be out of his Lady's line of sight when she speaks to him. If I were to associate Californian standards of emotional reaction to eye contact to him, this would most definitely be a "wrong emotion"!

People in Varin have such different emotional reactions from our own that I have to make sure at the start of my story to establish a sort of emotional compass for readers by putting them into unusual, Varin-based emotional situations early on and letting them experience how the characters react.

One example is the scene where Tagret goes to a concert with his friends and is looking around at girls - but making sure that when the girls get close he stops looking at their faces so that their bodyguards won't see him as a threat. He's not allowed to talk directly to a girl, but must speak to her bodyguard - and feels divided about speaking to the bodyguard, because he's experiencing the excited emotions he would have when speaking to the girl at the same time that he's feeling nervous about speaking with a bodyguard who could potentially beat him up.

Another example is the scene where Aloran is asked to help one of his Service Academy classmates prepare for an exam - but it's a washing exam, where the students are required to prove they can wash the body of the person they find most attractive without showing any signs of discomfort or emotional involvement. Aloran coaches his classmate through it and is perfectly calm through the whole thing, and very sympathetic to his classmate's discomfort, because he went through the same experience.

Errors of degree occur when we give a character an emotional reaction that is either too weak or too strong for the context within the world. These are subtle and often quite difficult to avoid. I tend to think of them in terms of overreactions and underreactions, and they pattern pretty predictably with what is normal for our own experience. An overreaction will occur when we have a character who is quite accustomed to a particular type of experience react as strongly as we would in the same circumstances (which for us are not normal). An underreaction will occur when we have someone fail to find anything odd about a circumstance which for us is entirely normal, but which for them is highly unusual and might even be shocking. The best way to combat them is always to keep our emotional compass for the fictional world on hand, and think through reactions carefully as we go.

To use the examples I mentioned above, if I were to have Aloran feel very awkward about having someone else wash him, then that would be an overreaction. If I were to have Tagret feel nervous, rather than shocked, about having a girl speak to him directly, that would be an underreaction.

The most common errors of degree that I notice in the stories I read are the kind that are related to questions of social power and privilege - poor people who hate those above them too much, and don't fear them enough, or noble people who spend a lot of effort and anger reviling the people below them when most of the time they wouldn't give them much thought at all.

When I'm writing along, these kinds of world-related emotional errors are the kind of thing that can make the story stop in its tracks. If you are getting an "odd feeling" from a scene or sequence, or if critique partners are raising their hands, take a look through for emotional errors. Errors of emotional type are much easier to find than errors of emotional degree. But being aware of the possibilities will help you to keep the emotional content of your story on track, and feeling real.


  1. Yet another great post.

    This is something I have to think through a lot. It's a bit complicated though, because my one VP character hides who she is.

    Because the line between what pushes her to act or to hide is blurred.

  2. What an excellent post... I think your observations about under and over-reactions are highly pertinent and very helpful.

  3. Thanks, Misha! I think it's important with someone like that to have a clearly defined criterion that states when she'll hide and when she won't. I'm sure it's a social thing... sounds interesting!

    Thanks very much for your comment, sjhigbee. Thanks for stopping by the blog!

  4. First time I've inspired a post. :) I like action books, so I read a lot of thrillers. There was one I read, which was a treasure hunt with husband/wife main characters. Bad guys are in hot pursuit and have already demonstrated they plan to kill the MCs. The expected emotions would fear, angry, panic, shock, surprise, and other related ones. What was the actual emotion? Worry, angst about the state of the relationship. Kind of ruins the suspense when the characters aren't afraid of the danger.

    Another one was an urban fantasy with a male main character who was suffering angst over having become a vampire. Might have worked -- the guy was a competent military-type, and using post-traumatic stress could have been a realistic basis. Only one problem -- the writer was a woman, and she veered the character's emotions into the wrong gender, creating the wrong kinds of reactions. It didn't even feel like how a man in the military, especially in the elite role he was in, would react.

  5. Linda, I see your point. I agree that it's important to think through the larger story context and not simply focus on relationship emotions. I don't think this is so much a function of character driven vs. plot driven stories. More an issue of calibrating different concurrent emotions with the overall story context (including character backstory etc.).

  6. Excellent post - how come I never stumbled across your blog until now? :)

    This is definitely one of the hardest parts of writing for me. The midpoint of my book hinges around a revelation that should logically freak the hero out - but I didn't want him to be so freaked as to completely break the plot! I think it took me two weeks to write that chapter!

  7. Wow, thanks, Anne! I'm glad you did. I'm glad you found a way through without breaking your plot, too.

  8. At least in the books I've seen, it's been writers have come out of character-driven novels and try to get into plot-driven. They often end up focusing on the things that were important where they had previously written, but don't focus on the things that are important where they are writing. It can be a signficant change, and that includes the way the characters react.