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 Spi's Random Fic Advice: Lesson Five, Emotions, Part One: Angst
  Posted: Apr 23 2005, 11:58 PM

Owner of Tea-Maker Eddie
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Emotions, Part One: Angst

I was once told that I could never become a writer because I lacked a working knowledge of human emotion.

Years of hard work has corrected that.

Learning how to write emotions is perhaps the biggest challenge to the fiction writer, and it's not a subject that can be adequately covered in a few pages, but I'll try to lay out the basics.

The best book on the subject is Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood, although that's more of a what-not-to-do list than anything else.

First of all, as you write the first draft, note the emotion or emotions the character should be feeling in the margins (or somewhere). Why? Because you want to avoid naming the emotion in the actual fic, but you don't want to forget what you are trying to express when you work on editing.

That's important. I'll say it again: Don't name the actual emotion in your fic. Show it. Don't explain it. Since that's easier said than done, that should keep you busy for a while.

Bad example: Janeway was depressed.

That's boring, reveals nothing about the character or the situation, and is a clear example of telling instead of showing. What you want to do is remember what it feels like to be depressed, and try to find a new way to express the emotion, or at least an interesting way.

Since various forms of sadness and depression are the most abused emotions in fanfic, let's start with a closer look at them. Angst is even considered a genre in fanfic.

Ever look up 'angst' in the dictionary?

An acute but unspecific feeling of anxiety; usually reserved for philosophical anxiety about the world or about personal freedom.

Notice it doesn't mention whining, stacks of dead bodies, or various forms of lovesickness. Anyhow, my advice on writing what we call angst in fanfic applies pretty well to most emotions.

Repeat yourself as little as possible. Yes, when a real live person is upset, they are repetitive. In fiction, we want to represent the situation, not replicate it. It gets boring. If your angsty bit is a subplot, it may need to be repeated here or there, but be brief about it, don't repeat for paragraphs on end.

Think of original little things that show a person is not right with their world. Being too lazy to turn on the stereo even though they know music would improve their mood, or overthinking some little detail of everyday life in an almost-overblown manner. I have a character show sadness over a little bit of spilled food in a fic, and it's not a situation where the waste really matters:

A cafeteria worker dropped a tray down in front of her.  Some gravy splattered across the table.  She stared at it.  The gravy had experienced many things to become part of a meal -- ingredients had been created, mixed, and cooked -- but now it would never get eaten. Now it was just something to wipe up with a sponge.

The character in that passage is feeling particularly unfulfilled in that scene. She sees the characters around her as having been abandoned, prevented from achieving their potentials by the carelessness of others.

Instead of having her think that, I let her think about the gravy on the table. I'm not sure every reader caught the symbolism, but I'm sure most caught the mood, and it's enough.

This brings me to another point: Don't talk down to your reader, and don't write like a control freak. Let it go. If a few readers miss the exact mix of worry and optimism your character feels in a particular paragraph, then so be it.

Don't add "Worried but optimisic, she said . . . " to every speaker attribute. It's tempting. You really want the reader to know she's worried but still optimistic, but you are going to have to trust them, and your own dialogue, and let it go.

Avoid unnecessary character deaths and the like to get a reaction from the audience. Same with the '50 years of unrequited love' thing. You don't need to keep Janeway and Chakotay apart for fifty years just to make the reader that much sadder before the big reunion. It's unrealistic and just plain depressing.

Keep them apart for a month, and let them think about the little things they missed about each other. A paragraph or two with a few touching phrases works better than big numbers in a single sentence anyhow.

Understated emotions are often the most effective. Put your character in a bad situation and have them react calmly. Let the little things mirror the bigger issues. Again, this is easier said than done, but it's worth practicing.

Compare these two fics to see what two years of practicing can accomplish:

Time Heals All

The Hard Choices

Both have a deathbed scene. Which one works better for you as a reader?
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