“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Dr. Maya Angelou
The quote above by poet, educator, and best-selling author, Dr. Maya Angelou, reminds us to give careful thought to our dealings with others. However, this quote can be just as meaningful for storytellers.
As writers, we want readers to connect with our protagonist on an emotional level. We want the reader to feel what our characters are feeling. If we can achieve this, readers will be invested in our character’s journey. This emotional investment is what keeps readers turning the pages.
The Trap of Naming That Emotion
“Who took the last donut?” John asked angrily.
Flat, lifeless characters who prance through a story announcing they’re sad, angry, or embarrassed do nothing to create an emotional connection with readers. In the sample above, we have no reason to connect with John’s feelings. Perhaps we think he’s being a tad bit melodramatic. So let’s try again.
John was starving. He opened the Krispy Kreme box, hoping for at least a glazed donut. Only globs of strawberry jelly and apple fritter crumbs remained. His jaw tightened as he slammed the box shut. Fists clenched at his side, he turned to Joe and Mike. “Who took the last donut?”
From both examples, we glean that John is angry because someone has taken the last Krispy Kreme donut. (They were warm Krispy Kreme donuts. Who could blame him? Right?) However, the second example allows us to get inside John’s head and see the situation from his perspective.
Perhaps we remember when a similar situation happened to us. We recall the disappointment and resentment we might have felt then. Now, we’re connecting with John on an emotional level. We sympathize with the plight of the character.
We feel what he feels.
Naming our characters’ emotions is easy. Sally feels sad. Showing readers her anguish–the changes in her body language, facial expressions, and voice–well, that takes a bit of work.
Dig into your storyteller’s tool chest and breathe life into your character. Demonstrate the emotion she is feeling. Make the reader feel her emotions, too.
We might not remember everything a character says or does, but we remember how they made us feel.
How do you manifest your characters’ emotions?