"How do I get deep into characters’ heads when I write?" On emotional resonance in writing:
The lovely endlessdreamer13 submitted this to me a while back, and I finally was able to formulate a response! She wrote:
How do you get so deep into characters heads when you write? I’d love to be able to get that depth but I’m never able to get it. Oneshots are a bit easier for that, but for my novel length stories, well, I feel like I’m hovering around the MCs head. I want my theoretical readers to get that emotional tug when reading.
May I first take a moment to thank you for such an amazing and loaded question? It made me giddy with happiness, and then I got so excited I rambled a bit—sorry in advance! Answer under the cut.
This is seriously such a great question. Thank you for asking it! I’m going to talk about some writing theory/psychology that I’ve picked up and then I’ll talk about some practical advice that’s helped me over the years. Let me know if this helps.
The first thing that might help you gain emotional resonance in novel-length stories is to be aware of what your character’s main arc is. Character arcs are the journey your character goes on in your story: in Mariposa, Santana’s journey is her self discovery and gradual acceptance of not only her sexual orientation but her ability to be a sensitive, vulnerable, happy person.
It has been said that you must make your character want something, even if it is only a drink of water. On a grander scale, this is an overall objective—your character’s goal for the story, or, in an extremely long story, in a specific portion of it. For Santana, who represses and denies anything that will force her guards down, this often includes a dangerous juggling act of what her heart wants—mostly Brittany, but occasionally love and acceptance—and what her head tells her she wants (popularity, the reputation as a slut and a bitch so people want her around but fear her and won’t try to hurt her, boys, and not Brittany). A specific scene objective could be fighting how much she wants Brittany because, to Santana, being gay is something other people have to suffer with, for effeminate boys like Kurt and Clay Aiken and those ugly butch women at Brittany’s motocross practice, and she can’t be gay because it’s gross and wrong and she—and Britt—aren’t like that. But the thing that probably sucker punches my readers—it definitely gets me!—is that she does want Brittany, and Brittany is so good, and if she says no she’ll lose Brittany as a friend—her best friend—so she lies to herself and says that what they do together is just relieving tension and that it doesn’t matter if there are no feelings involved, that it’s a one-time deal and Brittany just looks so beautiful… so she gives in and by breaking her guard down and going where her heart wants, she fails her objective.
Fails it. It’s gone. And then I get to write things like:
I just had sex with you. We just had sex. I lost my virginity to you. I’ve never felt more connected to anyone than I did just now. You made me come. That was magical; that’s what it’s supposed to feel like with anyone but you. And now I feel guilty and sick and excited and tender and loved and beautiful and really, really scared.
Her heart was thundering in her abdomen, similar to those times with Brittany that she totally didn’t think about because she wasn’t supposed to fuck her best friend and like it.
As soon as Santana’s head clears, this flood of panic and hatred and self loathing and fear hit her. She failed. She gave in. She’s weak. Even worse: she liked it. She can’t like it. She can’t!
This is usually where she breaks down and pulls away from the source of her hurt and shame, even though she knows it’s going to hurt Brittany back. But she’d damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.
The moment where your character fails is one of—of not the—most compelling and riveting scenes of your story. They wanted something and they failed, or they didn’t want something and it happened because they couldn’t control it. And for Santana, not only did she fail, she failed by giving into her secret desires, the kind that people aren’t supposed to act on. It’s her fault and her fault only—because she could never blame Brittany for her own shortcomings—and the way that Santana knows how to cope with this failed emotional stuffing is to hate herself and panic.
It’s that hate, that loathing, that anger that give my writing its emotional punch. My readers and I are such masochists; we love to watch Santana crash and burn, because when she does, she becomes this frightened girl hopelessly in love with her best friend that’s constantly fighting an uphill battle with herself and her emotions. Her failure and fears break her open and it’s the weight of all the emotion she feels that make my writing so deep—and therefore difficult—to read.
And write, I might add. I’ve had to take breaks from writing certain scenes to rest my face in my pillow and remember how to breathe without choking back sobs so I don’t send myself into a panic attack.
A rule of thumb: if it makes you cry, it will make the fangirls cry.
Oddly enough, in my creative writing class yesterday, my professor told us that it helps to think of your character as a person, not a character, because a person is multi-faceted and beautifully flawed and relatable. I know it helps me, when writing a character driven story, to put myself in the main character’s place. I know what makes them tick in abstract, but the true test is putting them into the scenes and situations out of their comfort zone. Think to yourself: How would insert character here react to this situation? What’s their first thought? Second? What would they say? What does this situation mean to them?
You mentioned something about feeling like you were “hovering around [your] [Main character’s] head,” which I understand. It’s hard to show emotional depth—and for me with Santana, emotional depth she won’t even admit to herself—without feeling boring or tell-y. And don’t worry: all writers feel this way at one time or another. On a whole, writers are a very special breed of people who are so incredibly harsh on themselves. But I’m totally not bias or speaking from personal experience here, so I could be wrong.
Sarcasm notwithstanding, the best way I’ve found to get over the Curse of Telling is to pretend that I’m my main character. How would I feel if Santana’s demons were in my head and my walls were being torn down by someone I love so much it hurts? What would I feel after someone I can’t—I shouldn’t—I don’t want to—not like that—brings me to a crazy dizzy skydive-y place for the first time? And I’m fourteen and confused and scared because what little I know about the world is dark and awful and cruel to the best kinds of people. How would I feel on a psychosomatic level? My chest would feel heavy and my eyes would burn and there would be a shameful stickiness between my legs. My stomach would ache because of all the different emotions swirling, threatening to choke me… and so on. Do you see what I mean here?
One of my betareaders once told me she admired my ability to write the ugly parts of life. I was flattered, of course, but a bit confused: what ugly parts? And though I haven’t discussed it with her since that conversation, I’m fairly certain that by ugly she meant difficult. I write scenes where my characters break open and bleed and cry and I’m not afraid to sink into the deep dark hole of feelings and sensations that go along with them. Don’t be afraid to write the ugly; don’t be afraid to drag your characters through hell.
Another smidgen of writing advice that may help your sucker punching—excuse me, emotional tugging--mission is to write vividly and interestingly. I’m sure you know this already, but it bears repeating: to make your writing vivid is to make it accessible. To make your writing unique challenges your readers; if you write how everyone else writes, our minds get bored and we lose some of that emotional tug from your story. But make it interesting—captivate us—and we’ll be creying jelly at your feet. Don’t just say she makes her happy like a thousand balloons are being released from her chest, say she makes her happy like no one else can, like something inside has broken open and burst free.
A great way to gain emotional resonance is to read stories that bring out that visceral response in yourself. After you’ve calmed down and are in a more stable mindset, reread your favorite scenes and take notes. Find out what makes your emotional response strongest and try to emulate it for your own projects.
I also recommend the brilliant Lauren’s lifechanging and supremely helpful Writing Workshops. They’re educational word porn and are written by one of the most fabulous women to ever exist—she, along with many of the other Brittana writers, have totally ruined real books for me—and they might help you tap into some writing potential that might be blocked.
Finally, I cannot stress the importance of of finding a betareader enough. Betas become your biggest fans; your best friends; your therapist; your cheerleader; your coach; your mentor and your fresh set of eyes and clear mind. At the least, they will make your story the best it can be; at most, they will save it from the firey pits of loathing and depression that are failed stories. Find a beta. Find a team of betas. Love them and treat like the goddesses (or gods) they are and you won’t be sorry.
I hope this helps! Good luck with your writing and let me know if you have any questions.