Really, I Couldn't Tell

If you're anything of an artist, and have made attempts at sketching the human face, you have probably run across numerous tutorials on human expression, and what the face does when someone undergoes any particular emotion. If you haven't drawn a human face (or anything, for that matter) perhaps you have seen pain charts at the doctor's office depicting something of the same idea. Either way, you know what I mean: the human face undergoes change in emotion, and each emotion, typically, has its own special expression. It's how we tell what someone is feeling at any given time.

I have tried drawing the human face in emotion, and it isn't easy. Faces, particularly eyes, will make or break a human picture. The person's psyche is neatly bound up in that one blot of anatomy, and the artist has to conquer the difficulty.

But I'm not here to talk about drawing. For the writing artist, depicting emotion is even more difficult. At least with a picture, you get to look at the person's face and say, "She doesn't look happy. He looks like he could kill. And doesn't she look like she is in raptures with that balloon?" With writing, we have no such leisure. We have to deliver the emotion to the reader without the use of a portrait - indeed, we have to deliver the emotion and the portrait through words instead of pictures. So how do we get it just right? How do we impress the reader with, not only the right emotion, but the emotion which fits the character as well as the situation? Do does one avoid the amateur depictions (the cliche villain temper-tantrum comes to mind)?

it's magic, mostly

No, seriously. Someone asked me once, "How do you write like that?" and my slightly-serious, tongue-in-cheek reply was, "It's magic." I'm usually a very atmospheric writer with often very introspective characters, and I depend heavily on a person's aura to deliver emotion. When I write, if the story is not fighting me, I am in the moment, there among the characters, and everything is knit together so that the situation and the characters are not two separate entities. They never are. It takes a very stalwart figure to remain even-keeled through life's tempests. So if anyone is suddenly worried about her character approaching a situation with the right emotion, rest easy. It isn't rocket science, though it does take thought. Often, it's just a matter of common sense.

know thyself

Or, rather, your character. Different people react to situations in different ways. In the face of danger or insult, one character might go cold afraid, while the character next to her might rise to biting wit. But while the characters are spiraling downwards or upwards into these patterns, what is everyone else (the reader included) seeing and hearing? The girl goes white - we think she must be afraid; the man goes rigid and withdrawn, and suddenly seems twice as tall again as before - he must be furious. Images, changes in the pressure of the atmosphere, even something as small as the sudden flicker of a hand as if to ward something off, can tell the reader just what a character is feeling and thinking. But a writer has to know her characters or the reactions won't be in keeping with their own personalities, or the plot. Time and acquaintance will help a writer get to know her characters, but take the time to make a more in-depth acquaintance. Notice the little things: they say volumes about a person's attitude.

don't always rely on the obvious

He smiled. She laughed. The dog growled. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these, and they certainly ought to be used. But, like "he said, she said," they oughtn't be over used. Brevity is to be admired, and please don't make a habit (it's embarrassingly easy to do so) of using yards and yards of description to escape the cliche or jaded terms, but on occasion imagination is required. A character is disapproving but playing along - he speaks his words purringly. The hackles lift on the dog like the spines of a boar's back, and everyone and his cousin feels the fury lurking in the animal, waiting to spring. A fellow has just flattered the girl kindly, and she knows it, so she laughs. But how does she laugh? Gaily, and with a touch of silver in her tone.

Stereotypically, women emote more than men do. There is always a reason for a stereotype, and in some cases this is true: women do emote more than men. Women get furious, women laugh, women break down in tears. Every which way you turn, your run-of-the-mill girl (pick me! pick me!) will be expressing her emotions in some typical way. For me, this makes women very hard to write. I can't have Adamant laughing and sobbing her way all over the place. She must be more than your average girl. But how do I depict that? Perhaps she is grateful for a compliment, and she colours at the cheeks while she drops a curtsy. Perhaps she is outraged or frightened: she blanches, and her stomach clenches up. Hopefully the reader can feel the pleased warm pinkness, or the curl of the belly at horror while at the same time seeing the curtsy, or seeing the white face. Images and atmosphere.

Now, how about men? We must do them justice. (K.M Weiland wrote an excellent post on the difficult of writing the opposite sex.) First of all, keep in mind your character's personality. Second, take into account the character's age. Is he just a little boy? Maybe he will answer pain with a stormy face, and a little cry afterward around the back of the woodshed, and the reader will appreciate both his frustration and his courage to hold off crying until everyone is out of sight. Is he full-grown? If he is full-grown, you will have an even harder time, for his reaction will absolutely depend on his personality. My husband, very amiable and easy-going, would probably take a difficult situation in stride. His face might be concentrated on his work, but he might just as well be chatting pleasantly with me while I attempt to divert his attention from the project to myself. My father will conjure up a magician's cloud of darkness in which to shroud himself, and everyone can feel it and will leave him alone. The gentleman whom I have adopted as my uncle (we'll call him Mr Knightley) sports the most amount of expression among the men I know: everything gathers in his face, either in a sudden burst of laughter (the way a kingfisher will dart) or in a slow brooding darkness (like a summer thunderstorm). Much is in the aura, and the aura often puts on a flesh-and-blood form through the facial features.

But once again, don't rely on the typical all the time. Don't always say that he frowned, don't always say that he grinned. Maybe he speakings with his teeth on edge, or cheekily.

in short

It boils down, largely, to knowing your character so well that even a mere gesture can depict emotion and convey the gist of the character's thoughts to your reader. This is one way to bring your character to life for the reader. We don't always rely on people voicing their thoughts so that we can know what they are thinking or feeling. They say actions speak louder than words. What are your character's "little things"? What expressions does he or she have, or what gestures?

atmospheric example

Druce bent his head and continued burnishing. The sound of the supper crowd went on above their close bent heads. He worked, with light flickering in and out across the blade as he moved, and she watched, holding the jar when and where he wanted it. For no reason she could think of, her heart was beating in her chest rather strongly, like the wings of a bird—she always thought her heart had a swan’s pair of wings—and she twisted her lip between her teeth.

“She is very like a lady,” Druce said presently. She noticed how light his fingers were on the sword, as Ambrose’s were on the sheep. Suddenly he pulled away from the sword, peering at it uncertainly through his unruly forelock. “I wonder that the best swords are like ladies. They say Aidan Roefax’s—his is like a lady.”

“Aye.” Her gaze dropped back to the sword. For a while neither of them moved, then Druce slowly returned to burnishing.

They did say Aidan Roefax’s sword was very like a lady, riding lightly at his side as she had seen the older girls lean on the arms of their loves. But she liked Aidan Roefax’s lady better, for she was grave as well as light. His sword was the only lady Tate had ever seen at his side, too. The man flickered among them without seeming to brush anyone, and she always felt a kind of ghostly thrill when she chanced to see him from afar off. And she was glad that Druce’s sword was a lady like that, grave and light, light and grave…

There was a blur of shadow between them, and Tate looked up quickly to find Aidan Roefax himself above them, looking down at the thing which Druce held in his hands. The firelight turned his hair into a wild-swept crown of copper-streaked darkness, the shadows plunging stark from his sharp nose. He had a strange face, angular and dark, and a scar divided a straight bar of brow from black to silver to black again. Tate had never seen the man so close, and she caught her breath. Druce, busy with the burnishing of the blithe bright thing in his hands, did not notice the warrior until the young man said, “If you can find it in your belly, cub, I would have you run with my pack.”

Druce, startled out of his work, flung up his head, the russet thatch about his forehead tossing backward as Idunna the red mare would do; flung back his head to look up into that grim, laughing face above them. She held her breath, listening to the sound of the blood in her ears and the surf-sound of the talk around them. But the two seemed apart from the world, Druce and Aidan Roefax, apart from even herself, looking in a silent communion at each other with the sword between them. Only the red gem in the warrior’s ring winked conspiratorially at Tate, as if to include her in a curious blood-coloured secret.

And Druce, who had seemed only a few moments before uncertain of himself and of the sword, suddenly gave back the same grim laugh and said, “I can find it in my belly, and well, sir.”

“Good,” said Aidan. “At the duck-flight, then.” And he swung away, his shield hitched up across one shoulder and the painted dragon on it big and bold with the firelight jinking off the iron rim all around it.

But it seemed the two had not been in their own world, shut out from the rest. For as Aidan strode among the others, Tate heard someone call out, laughingly and a little high as one will do who is very nearly drunk, “Aye! If we have the roly-polies running in the wolf pack, we’re sure of a victory over the Norman aetheling!”

Aidan checked, turning his hawk-nosed face over his shoulder, full in the firelight with a little sharing smile on his face, as if he thought the jest were funny too. But Tate was sure everyone in the hall knew that the jest was not funny to Aidan, and she felt the soft ripple of awkwardness run among them, as a little wind will run among the grasses of the downs. The young man stalked on, straight as an ash-shaft, the faint, shining mockery that he had like a mantle about him, which reminded Tate of the voice of Ambrose’s silver bells.
jennifer freitag

4 ripostes:

  1. Great post! I think picking personalized reactions is especially important -- otherwise, the characters could all seem too much alike, too generic.

  2. Grazie, Jenna! And you're perfectly right. Every person has their own range of expressed emotion - why shouldn't characters have the same? You're perfectly right.

  3. Hurrah, JennyWisdom of the writing kind!

    Thank you for this post. I know it helped me very much indeed, and prompted me not only to refine certain areas of description, but to flesh out my characters as well.

    Oh, and the snippet -- what can one say? Beautiful.

    "And he swung away, his shield hitched up across one shoulder and the painted dragon on it big and bold with the firelight jinking off the iron rim all around it."

    Firelight jinking off the iron rim... Again, I am penslain and at loss for words. How does one explain the lurching of the heart when reading something so perfectly beautiful?

    I could revel in your description, bury myself in it, and always and ever be happy as a lark.

  4. I will stuff a comforter full of penslayage, Katie, and bundle you up in it with a cup of tea. That's what I'll do. And you don't have to explain the lurch: I know the feeling myself.

    I'm glad this helped. Needless to say, I have to take my own advice, but they say recognizing the problem is the first step in rectifying it.

    They also say that as regards to insanity.

    Getting nervous...