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Character Emotions & Psyche: How They Shape You and Your Characters

By Rachel Ballon

"Only connect the prose and the passion,and both will be exalted."
- E. M. Forster

Learn how to be a successful writer by creating character emotions that draw your audience in with this helpful article by author Rachel Ballon.

Emotions are the lifeblood of characters and of stories. Without emotional characters, you are just writing events, but you're not drawing your audience into your story. To be a successful writer, you want to create emotional characters so your audience will become emotionally involved with them. It's important for readers and viewers to become completely engrossed in the emotional world of your characters.

As a script consultant and writers' psychotherapist, I've analyzed thousands of scripts during the past 20 years where so much attention has been given to structure, plot points, turning points, and the climax. These are an integral part of writing a good script. However, I've discovered that unless you are able to inject your characters with emotions, your script will be boring, your characters dull and your story won't work, even if the structure does.

There is no life living without emotions. There is no heart in any type of art without emotions. Famous plays, films, novels, and poetry always evoke emotional reactions from viewers and readers. The word emotion derives from the Latin emovere, which translates as: to excite, to move, to stir or to agitate. Emotions are what motivate your characters' actions in all stories, with the most basic emotions being the desire for security or self-preservation. Motivation always springs from some emotional need, such as the need for love, revenge, power, or the desire for control, fame, respect, or recognition.

As a modern writer, you must have a deep understanding of the emotional and psychological world of your characters if you want to be taken seriously. Your awareness of these worlds enables others to be sensitive to the unseen motivations of your characters and the multiple layers of their personality. When you create emotional characters, you always need to start with yourself because the characters in your stories are all part of you. There are riches within that many of you never access because of fear of revealing the true you and of being too exposed.

By going behind the façade of your characters, you'll write ones with real meaning and purpose. Submerged feelings, once emerged will enrich your life as a writer and give your characters an emotional reality. You'll need to answer questions about your characters' emotional life such as: Is your character depressed? How does your main character emotionally relate to other characters? What is the emotional make-up of your main character and your major characters? As you better understand the importance of knowing how to inject emotions into your characters, you'll be able to answer these questions for all of your characters in any story.

Emotions are energy and when you write emotional characters you are giving them energy and momentum to take action and to overcome obstacles, especially emotional conflicts. Writing stories gives you the opportunity to create characters with strong feelings and layers of emotional depth, because such stories come from a place of deep emotional truths inside of you.

You need to create characters who will involve and represent your passions, loves, hates, joys, sorrows, resentments, fears, and let your emotional characters shine through in the story. Many of you might say, "Well, that's obvious, every good writer knows that you need emotions in your characters and stories."

Even though this is true, you'd be surprised how many writers have no idea how to give their characters emotions. Why? Because they don't allow themselves to feel their own emotions. They remain distant and detached from their feelings and are unable to put them into their characters.

Are you one of those writers? Do you find it difficult to feel your feelings, let alone express them? If you don't express your emotions, no matter how great your plot or how complex your characters, your story will fail because real people have emotions and you need to create emotional characters to replicate human beings.

I'm going to show you how to approach your own emotions as well as your characters' emotions, but let's begin with you since you're the creator. One caution is that you don't write overly emotional stories, which are filled with false feelings and sentimental characters who are melodramatic and filled with exaggerated emotional responses. You want to create honest characters who allow room for your readers or viewers to connect with them, while projecting their own emotions into your characters. It's important to work on your characters from the inside to discover what type of emotions are residing behind their smiling faces.

I once consulted with a man who was writing a novel about an older couple's love affair. His characters were stilted in their dialogue, flat in their feelings, and empty in their emotions. He wasn't able to put feelings into his characters, so I asked him to recall his own feelings when he was in love. Luckily, he was able to retrieve his emotions and began to inject them into his characters, who became so much richer and emotionally deep, that he had to completely rewrite his novel.

What I learned from working with him was that until you can access your own emotions, you'll never be able to give emotions to your characters. By asking these same types of questions for yourself, you will eventually retrieve your emotional memories.

Screenwriting Exercise: Access Your Own Emotions, then Give Emotions to Your characters

Part A:

Before you start to create your characters ask: "What do I want my characters to feel in this scene?" "What emotion do I want them to display?" "What would my characters feel in this particular situation?"
Do you have a clear vision of the emotional life you want for your characters?

Were you able to answer all of these questions? If yes, then you're well on the way to creating successful characters. Be sure to incorporate these questions so you'll know how your characters feel before you create them and this will enable you to succeed in putting emotions into your characters.

If you have no idea how to give your characters emotions, then start with yourself and your own emotions, exploring all the wonderful raw materials buried inside of you. Do you feel passionate about the story you're writing? Do you feel emotionally connected to your characters and their feelings? Do you know your character's emotional intention?

Avoid being too emotionally involved with your characters, which will prevent you from having the objectivity needed to create good characters. This has happened with writers I've consulted with who were writing about something too personal and too soon, like the death of their lover or their latest divorce. You need to have enough distance from an emotional event. Write about it at a later time when you're able to be less emotionally involved.

Part B:

What emotions do you want to express through your characters? Can you verbalize the emotions you want them to feel? Are these emotions ones that you're able to feel? Do you express your emotions? Can you readily identify them? It is imperative for you to answer these questions honestly, if you want to create emotional characters who ring true to your audience and succeed in drawing them into your writing.

Maybe some of you avoid tapping your inner feelings and resist getting in touch with your own emotions. If that's the case, your characters remain one-dimensional and stereotyped, preventing you from selling your writing. No matter how talented you are, until you're willing to express yourselves without fear and reveal what you feel, your characters will remain flat. The emotional spine of your character is like the spinal cord of the central nervous system that spreads out over the body and the story. If you can't release your emotions into your characters, they won't come to life.

The greatest characters are those who touch the feelings of the audience in different cultures and societies, withstanding the test of time. Emotional characters have emotional depth and allow the audience to experience empathy for them. If you can master the ability to reach inside and inject emotions into your characters, your writing, and yourself, you will experience great success.

Emotions 101 - Sad, Bad, Mad, Glad

"Feel the feeling..." - Charles Rumberg

Recently, I consulted with a writer who developed exciting plots for her scripts, but all of her characters were cold and unemotional. The problem was she was so removed from her feelings that she looked at me quizzically when I asked, "How did that make you feel?" Her writing dealt only with external conflicts and didn't include emotional relationships, especially in her mystery scripts. Even though her plots and characters were filled with twists and turns, they lacked heart and spirit.

As we worked together, I discovered that she was totally detached from her emotions because as a child she was punished whenever she showed anger or sadness. She learned to survive in her family by not expressing any emotions and so she buried or repressed them.

So how can you successfully create emotional characters if you hide from your own emotions and don't know what you're feeling? First, you need to become acquainted with your own emotions starting with four basic, universal ones. Let's call this Emotions 101. If you have the same problem of not knowing what you're feeling, then you can do the following exercises to identify your feelings. It's important that you understand this process, so you can build emotionally real characters.

The four basic emotions to start with are Sad, Bad, Mad, Glad. Every time you can't respond to "How did that make you feel?" choose one of these four emotions to help you focus on your feelings. "Does it make you feel "Sad?" "Bad?" "Mad?" "Glad?"

After doing this for a while, you'll soon begin to connect your feelings to these simple words, which I'll refer to as SBMG. This emotional process will elevate your writing to another level of competence as you begin to infuse your characters with these emotions, which are your authentic feelings.

The following exercise will help you get in touch with your emotions.

Screenwriting Exercise: Get in Touch With Your Emotions

Part A:

When you are in a situation that brings up strong feelings, ask yourself: "What emotion am I feeling right now?" After you've identified your feelings by referring to the four basic emotions above, SBMG, recall a time when you've felt one of these emotions. Next write a separate scene using each emotion, SBMG, and writing from your senses of touch, taste, sound, sight and smell.

After you've written about all four separate emotions, read your scene aloud to someone. What feelings come up for you? Were you moved by what you've written? Do you understand the need for you to first feel the feeling before you put emotions into your characters?

Part B:

Now that you've completed writing about your own emotions from your personal experiences, it's time to write four individual scenes using these same four emotions for your fictional characters. When you create emotional characters who exhibit these strong feelings, you're letting the audience identify with them without telling them how to feel. When you write about how the characters feel don't tell your readers the emotion, show it through their actions, dialogue and nonverbal expressions. For example, don't write, "Jane was feeling so mad, because her little brother didn't listen to her and was being bad." Instead show us Jane feeling mad by having her slam the door as she picks up the dirty clothes and toys he had thrown all over the room.

Through your character's actions and dialogue, reveal that he is SBMG without using those words. After you've finished writing four scenes with these emotions, read them. How do your characters reveal their emotions? Are you able to identify what they're feeling? Are they experiencing the same emotions you felt when you wrote about yourself? Is there truth to what they're feeling or does it seem false? Are your characters' emotions believable?

Remember, no matter how perfectly structured your writing, if you can't move your readers or viewers to laugh, cry, scream or tremble, you won't have succeeded in creating characters worth caring about and your story won't work. When you write feelings from your heart to your characters' heart, you'll tug at the heart of your audience.

Meet the Author: Rachel Ballon

Rachel Ballon, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist and the founder and director of The Writer's Center in Los Angeles. The author of two critically acclaimed books, Dr. Ballon has reviewed hundreds of scripts for major Hollywood studios, including United Paramount Network, Saban Entertainment, and Fox Kids. A master teacher and noted success coach, Dr. Ballon has taught as an adjunct professor at USC School of Cinema and Television.