Like everyone else, writers may be reluctant to wade through their deepest emotions. It’s like a swamp down there—with all the worst quagmire characteristics: rotting material, oppressive atmosphere, fetid odors—the stuff of nightmares. Maybe even the idea turns you off. Who loves swamps, or wants to revisit fear, anger, or pain? At best it puts you in a terrible mood; at worst it hurts.
But dark places can originate creativity: carnivorous plants, larger-than-life creatures, symbolism, secrets.
In Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques, Donald Maass suggests that novelists often gain the greatest impact by probing deep inside—unearthing what they’d rather forget or ignore.
Tip: You’re the best source of the depths that make your characters compelling and real.
The point isn’t self-torture, of course, but the kind of experiment that scientists like Newton have always performed. To whatever extent you can step back to notice or recall profound feeling, you might gain both perspective and stoicism. You might unearth the details that create complex characters, which in turn creates compassionate readers.
Questions to might help achieve that:
~ How would you rank this pain (or fear or lust or rage)?
Scoring helps recall other instances of intense emotion and produces more objective comparisons. This can yield specific examples and strong metaphors. Make yourself take notes so you can later round out your characters—even your minor ones.
~ What’s hidden in your personal swamp?
Perhaps there’s more envy (or competitiveness or greed or selfishness) than you usually acknowledge. But it’s okay, because you’re wearing protective garb: “This is for the writing.” That arms you against hideous imagery and noxious fumes while you dig up the traits that shape intriguing characters. Write down the details.
~ How does intense emotion affect you physically?
Note breathing changes—also your pulse, lips, shoulders, and tongue. Which of the five senses dominates? What happens to hunger, thirst, energy, even digestion? Record your observations to replace clichéd body language like turning, yawning, and shrugging.
If life dumps you in a swamp, such exercises may feel intolerable. But if you can wade the bog for the sake of your novel and its characters, your discoveries might enrich not only your fiction, but your life.