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Those Pesky Feelings

Every writer who has poured effort into study of the craft knows that a character must be a person with both feelings and emotions if we want our writing to be successful. Often, the struggle for writers is in clearly distinguishing between the two because emotions aren’t feelings and if all we show readers are emotions, then our characters lack the depth of feeling needed to carry our manuscripts forward. In this blog post I will give you my interpretation of emotions and feelings and offer a few suggestions regarding how I use them in character development.

Emotions are the immediate perception of, coupled with a physical response to, stimulus. They originate in the limbic system of the brain and greatly influence the autonomic nervous system. That means they are linked directly to the fight-or-flight instinct and all the uncontrollable, physical, bodily, reactions any given situation brings out in us. Emotions happen in the moment. They are the sensations of confrontation, stemming from direct contact with both the good and the bad in our lives.

Emotions are primitive and basic. As such, there aren’t that many of them. In fact, it has been suggested that there is only one, Love. Other candidates for the list are Hate, Fear, Joy, and Sorrow. That’s about it.

The logic behind Love being the only emotion is that all the others stem from it. For example Hate is the absence of Love. Fear can be viewed as Love denied or the absence of love in others, which is their Hatred for us. Joy is either the giving or receiving of Love and Sorrow is loss of Love.

Just to keep things interesting, Let’s look at what Elisabeth Kubler Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, a pioneer in near-death studies, and author of the internationally best-selling book, On Death and Dying, has to say about emotions: “There are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt. It's true that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it's more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They're opposites. If we're in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we're in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear.”

However you choose to view emotion, the main point to keep clear is that emotions are expressed in the heat of the moment, without thought or even time to think. It is the gut reaction our characters have to situations and they are always accompanied with physical manifestations; shortness of breath, sweating palms, the mouth making an O, whatever.

Feelings on the other hand, are responses to external or internal conditions after they are understood or put into context. They are longer-term reactions. A character’s Fear of dying might, over time, change into hopeless if they have been diagnosed with cancer. If the evil villain just wiped out a village of innocents, a character might seethe with outrage after recovering from the loss of Love for so many people.

Biologically, feelings are produced by activity in the frontal lobe of the brain. That is also where our abstract thinking takes place. As such, another way to look at our feelings, which span a wide range of states and degrees, for example being grumpy vs. throwing a tantrum, is to say that they are how we think about things. In our stories, the way our characters think is what has to change.

Emotions can and do influence feelings. Whatever we throw at our characters, it is their feelings that will be the motivators of action taken in response to plot twists, pivot points, disasters, and triumphs. That response has to be what drives the story forward. The emotions from coming into contact with these plot devices will, of course, color how the character feels about them.

I’ve often heard this driving forward called the B-Story. Perhaps more commonly, it goes by the name Character Arch. The most simplistic explanation of the B-Story is that it is the interior journey a character makes in response to our main story unfolding so that who they are at the beginning of the tale is not who they wind up being at the end. The story changes them. This cannot simply be a rags-to-riches, external, or physical change in circumstances. Their core thoughts and beliefs, their feelings, have to change in some way. It must be an interior paradigm shift in worldview, concept of self, or the character’s place in the larger world surrounding them.

Perhaps and example would help. Let’s pretend werewolves surround our heroes. They can, and should, experience emotion because no Love is coming their way from the wolf pack. They may shudder, scream, wet their pants even. What they can’t do is muse over their loathing of all things supernatural. That loathing is a feeling and therefore inappropriate when it’s kill-or-be-killed time. Conversely, our characters cannot experience such a great jolt of Fear then, after thinking things through, come to believe that werewolves are misunderstood creatures who would make excellent house-pets. Unless that is one of your plot twists, such a Loving response to an un-Loving occurrence is too disjointed.

In the end, characters need to have both emotions and feelings. Emotions will tell readers about the resilience and temperament of the character. Feelings will show what kind of person that character is. At least that’s how I use them.

Drop me a message and let me know what you think or how you deal with the emotions and feelings of your characters.


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