Sunday, April 6, 2014

Feeling the Feeling

Since novelists need their readers to feel what the characters do, it’s useful that humans feel with both our hands and hearts. Characters, too, can touch either a face or a nerve. What’s this got to do with conveying feelings?

Feeling covers so much territory: to grope, caress fur, get chilled, evade anger, experience curiosity or euphoria. What do they all share in common?

To answer this, consider churches. They evoke our deepest feelings, whether sanctity, security, love of beauty—or frustration over whether church delivers or nullifies these.

Physicality is the source of the profound emotions that churches evoke. The images are so intense—so iconic, that most everyone senses spiritual presence, even if no incense burns, even if you never kneel, touch a statue, or let a wafer melt on your tongue.

Since they first built churches, they knew that the feelings we literally feel transmit those we can only imagine. Fiction works precisely the same way.

Tip: Tangible feeling is the route to emotional feeling.

Despite this, people, including writers, of course, reduce the complexity and solidity of emotion to abstract and unrealistic shorthand: scared, angry, overjoyed, miserable. “Sad” evokes the same amount of physical sensation that “good as gold” does—i.e. none at all. Imagery isn’t enough. It’s got to be imagery that’s still vital.

So how do you help your readers feel the feelings?

Bring characters together.
Can someone brooding alone match the intensity of a live confrontation?

Translate into body language.
Forget abstract description and ponderous pondering. What is the character doing?

What event or image (image—not cliché) does the feeling resemble?

Few feelings are one-dimensional. What conflicting emotions does your character feel?

Fiction works its magic by creating a world, and worlds are built from what we hear, see, smell, touch, and taste. Convey feeling with—feeling.

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