Signaling Emotional Changes in Story Characters

Emotional changes
Signaling Emotional Changes in Character
ONE of the hallmarks of good writing in films and novels is that there are emotional changes to the characters through time.

In stories, as in life, people learn from their mistakes, from life’s hard knocks, and try to prevent them from recurring by adjusting some aspect of their character.

Some, of course, never do, but that’s a topic for a future article.

But how do characters move from one state to another? How does love turn into hate? Passion into indifference?

Cueing Emotional Changes

Novice writers often make the mistake of creating characters who erratically jump from state to state. I’ve written before in this blog about the need for introducing transitional emotional states.

But how do we specifically convey these shifts to our readers? Is it through dialogue? Is it through narration?

In most cases, the best way to signal change is subtly, through small but telling actions. In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty offers the example of a girl falling out of love with her boyfriend.

Does the girl tell him outright that she no longer loves him?

That might be too abrupt (unless that is the specific effect we are after). It would also be spoon feeding the reader. The story might require that the breakup be dragged out a bit.

In the example provided by Geraghty, the character stops using hair conditioner when washing her hair. It is a sign that she no longer cares about looking her best for him – that he’s not worth the extra cost of conditioner.

Subtle, but telling.

In planning for an emotional shift in your characters, then, identify the spot where the shift is to occur, then insert a telling but subtle action to signal it. This technique will add polish and finesse to your writing.

Summary

Signal a significant change to the emotional state of your characters through subtle but telling actions.

Published by

Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

2 thoughts on “Signaling Emotional Changes in Story Characters”

  1. Perhaps the fastest and most powerful method of character development is by presenting the character a challenge in a situation set in a unfamiliar and even hostel environment that will result in possible confrontation. There are many films were this method works – Good Will hunting where the hero is confronted by a professor who wants him to recognize his own potential. The King’s speech where the hero is challenged by a speech therapist to confront his physical short comings in order to lead a country.

    In Gotham , only through placing Bruce Wane in the “bad side” of the city does he understand how he can one day help the people of Gotham. This is a challenge set by future love interest Selina Kyle.

    In short – the best way to develop characters is through other secondary characters.

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