Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

The Writer’s Way: Perfecting Character Reactions

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 02•20

Overcast here this morning, the plum trees are blossoming in pale pink splendor,  and the few tulips that the voles didn’t eat are ready to bloom. I’m not above staging an all-out war on rodents, but I might need to plant tulip bulbs in pots from now on.

I’ve been working on manuscripts lately where I’ve noticed that the characters’ reactions to events, stress, or trauma are sometimes bland or repetitive. That is, every time a character is afraid, has misgivings, or worries he or she feels it in  his or her stomach. Or hairs on the back of her neck rise. Or eyes go wide with surprise.  Or worse yet, characters rarely react or react inappropriately as the dialogue just rattles along with nary a raised heartbeat or adrenaline rush.

But it’s in responses to pain, fear, and loss that make  a character indelible. Because characters are best revealed under stress. And as in real life, our responses to trouble define us. If your characters don’t feel, neither will your readers. And if emotions don’t lead to further actions, then part of fictional chain is missing.

This means a writer’s job is to garner emotional expressions from a variety of sources. One method is to study actors, observing facial expressions, gestures, and body language. This is especially powerful during live theater performances. I especially pay attention to how actors walk onto the stage conveying the essence of their roles with posture, costumes, gestures, voice quality. Try noticing your first impressions of every actor you’re watching in films and television. It’s also fascinating to notice if your first impressions are accurate.

I’ve seen two live relays  from Moscow of the Bolshoi Ballet at a local theater this winter. And I’ve come to understand why the troupe is legendary in their 243rd season. Before the performance a host explains the story that is about to unfold and interviews dancers and others involved in the production.  It’s fascinating to watch the dancers demonstrate how they’re conveying emotions via movement and grace. Embodied. Emotion in motion. Because ballet is about putting movement to the feelings expressed in the music and moment.

Choreographers don’t simply teach dance steps, they teach how to interpret feelings. I also saw a recent Metropolitan Opera showing of Porgy and Bess. Frederick Ballentine who plays Sportin Life explained how the choreographer Camille Brown taught him to become wolf-like and predatory via his body language. He creates such dynamism in the role and I couldn’t keep my eyes off his lithe, slippery moves.

There has even been a study done of human brains reacting to dance steps and the emotions they portray. The study showed that even when a dance wasn’t choreographed to depict emotions the audience still tried to create a narrative from what was unfolding. You can read about the study here.

Along with studying professionals and people you encounter in daily life, really  sink into your characters when you write. If your character is being chased by a monster where and how would he/she feel the terror and panic? What about handling a difficult physical challenge like climbing a rock face? If your character loses someone how will he/she react? Where does he/she hold grief? I recently lost a beloved aunt before Christmas and came to understand the expression heavy-hearted because it felt like there was a large stone lodged in my chest. When I read her obituary and studied the photo next to it with her smiling eyes, the reality of her death hit hard as a punch.

I’ve mentioned here before that often writing action scenes is akin to method acting, but this suggestion bears repeating. As you write the scene, you try to feel what the character feels. If you cannot conjure the emotion in the moment, then you dredge up memories. So if your character has just lost a beloved spouse, then you remember back to your own losses, especially the potent ones. If I was writing the scene I’d remember my mother’s funeral. I’d remember leaving behind a relationship and the bewildering grief of starting over.

Your next step is to find fresh expressions to convey the loss. This is where close reading and recording other writers’ language comes in. Expand your characters’  reactions by recording the best ones you encounter in your writer’s notebook. And while you’re not going to lift them word by word, I can assure you that jotting down examples will prime your creativity.

One more thought: read outside your comfort zone whatever that might be. I promise it will expand your repertoire of emotional responses.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart



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  1. Yes! One of my problems is there are only so many ways to describe what someone is doing with their eyes. Halfway through the book I’ve run through the whole list. 😉

    • Jessica Morrell says:

      It’s hard isn’t it? That’s why I collect them in my writer’s notebook.
      The Emotional Thesaurus is another resource. Good writing to you.

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