I love to watch people. Especially in an airport. Yes, I admit I compare myself to others (it’s a woman thing, I think), and I discovered that it’s a great way to reveal the emotional landscape of a character.
See, we often project how we feel in how we might describe a character. Consider this description from the POV of our test subject, Darla, a woman who is afraid to fly. She sees this woman in the gate area:
Across from her, a woman’s sandaled foot tapped to unheard music, her eyes closed, her hand draped over her carryon bag. In her other hand, an empty coffee cup from Starbucks – had she passed a Starbucks on the way in? — as if she’d started her morning early. Sure, fatigue pressed into the wrinkles of her dress pants, flattened her blonde hair. Still, she hadn’t a hint of sweat, nor even a crease on her forehead as the gate attendant announced their flight. Indeed, in moments she’d bounded into line, handing over her ticket, wearing an expression that suggested she’d finish her nap in-flight. A regular Amelia Earhart.
Darla sees a calm, if not tired, passenger. Hopefully you can hear some envy from Darla, some wistfulness that she might be that calm, even accustomed to flying.
This powerful emotional layer technique takes a person in the setting and uses it in two ways. I like to call it the other VOICES in the scene.
First, use these other people like a mirror to your character’s emotional state:
This is from a book called the Second Coming of Lucy Hatch; about a woman who longs to figure out how to live away when her husband dies, and discovers that she never really did. Her description of a local country singer, Ash Farrell, is juxtaposed to the dismal life she has lived.
A flashbulb went off, illuminating the fact onstage, igniting an image from some dim, long buried corner of my memory. Ash Farrell.
If I’d given him any thought at all, I have picture him on his bike, flying down some wooded highway with his guitar strapped to his back, his hair whipping clean back from his face as the center stripe beneath him blurred to solid white, taking him away from the rest of us and our small finite lives; I would not have thought East Texas could hold him.
Really, she’s wondering how it held her all this time.
Another way to use other people is to juxtapose them with the character.
Here’s another line from Lucy Hatch – she’s in grief, but she sees her mother, also in grief…
She wandered the house in a dirty satin negligee, drinking whiskey out of a jelly glass…her future dragging behind her in the tail of her ratty robe.
We don’t have to have Lucy tell us that she doesn’t want to be like that.
This technique is just a matter of letting your character see someone who embodies the same or opposite emotion as your character, and letting them describe them in their voice, adding inflection, opinion, and using strong verbs and nouns to convey that emotion.
Try this: look around the scene. Who do you have in the scene who might have been there, done that, in terms of your character’s emotions. What do they look like now? Or, is there someone your character would like to emulate? Or even, is there someone your character would never want to be?
This is another way to “trick” your reader by layering in the emotions of your character without naming them, but rather bouncing them off an ancillary character.
Next Monday, we’ll continue this discussion with the strongest way to show emotions: ACTION!
Have a great writing week!
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