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Creating impactful characters with emotion and detail

There are two basic kinds of fiction stories, character driven and plot driven. Every story has both elements to one degree or another. Stories of character need plot to test and challenge the characters. Stories of plot need characters to advance the story.

Using emotion in writing is specific and unique to each character. “A man walked into the room. A scar ran across his left cheek. Sometime in the past his nose had been broken. He sneered as he surveyed the room. ‘Has anybody seen Barty?’” This is a dangerous man who has led a hard life. There is no need to rely on cliché references. The reader knows what kind of character this is. Such details are tags that quickly identify characters and remind the reader of who they are. It might be a voice pattern or a food they like or a mannerism with their hands. All main characters need unique tags to differentiate them in the story.

When writing depends on sentiment, it draws from general clichés. It stays on the surface and lacks specifics, relying instead on shared cultural experiences for reference. It uses generalities, such as, “A man walked in the room. He looked like Humphrey Bogart. He said, ‘Has anybody seen Barty?’” Those who have no experience with the twentieth century tough guy actor would have no idea as to how the character looks or what his attitude is. Even those who remember Humphrey Bogart will form different images in their minds from different performances, or from fogged memories.

Consider a group of refuges escaping to a new home. We could write the story from a sentimental viewpoint using common clichés as in:

"The crowd of refugees walked along the hot, dusty road. There were men and women and children fleeing a war they had not started. There were shop keepers and doctors and taxi drivers and artisans all driven out by the bombs dropped on them. Adini, a dark haired boy of six, trudged next to his twelve year old brother. Their father walked slowly in front of them. He would turn around at times and urge them forward.

"All three were hungry and thirsty. Adini wanted to stop, sit down and cry. His feet hurt and he was tired. He thought back to the day a barrel bomb had exploded in the apartment above them, killing his mother. He had cried as his father dragged him into the street just before their apartment caved in. Now, the only hope they had was to reach a safe haven."

Now, let's get emotional and specific.

"Adini’s stomach cramped as he forced himself to place one foot in front of the other on the dust laden road. He ran his tiny hand over his dark hair and his tongue along his parched lips. He was only six and didn’t fully understand why they were fleeing. He remembered the bombs being dropped on the buildings. He saw, in his mind, his mother laying under a slab of concrete and his father dragging him from the building as he screamed and fought to run to his mother’s side. Two hundred others marched with him in the heat – men, women, children, infants. They moved at a somatic pace. He heard moans and sobs, but no one spoke. Some limped. One man helped support a pregnant woman, though Adini was too young to understand why her belly was so large. His father had carried his sister after her legs were crushed in the collapse of their apartment building. One morning, she didn’t wake up and they left her body at the side of the road. It was the first time Adini had ever seen his father cry.

"His older brother had told him that they were going to a place where milk and honey flowed and they would be safe forever. The thought of food made the cramps grow worse. His feet hurt and he wanted to stop walking, sit down and cry, but he knew his brother would hit him if he did because everyone’s feet hurt, everyone wanted to sit down and everyone wanted to cry. He pursed his lips together and continued walking."

Which version had more impact? Which reveals the character of Adini more powerfully for the present and the future? Drawing specific emotions out of your characters creates memorable stories that stick with your readers and solidify your themes.


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