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Writing With Heart: Creating an Emotionally Engaging Character

by Ruth Ann Nordin (originally posted on

Someone recently asked me about writing with emotion. This is really about creating the emotionally engaging character because if you don’t write emotion into your character, the reader won’t connect with that character on an emotional level. It’s hard to explain the difference between a great story and an emotionally satisfying story because the distinction is subtle.

Write With Your Heart = Showing Emotion-driven writing isn’t about telling your reader what your character is feeling. Something like, “She was afraid she’d fail the test” is telling the reader what the character is feeling. It’s also more than simple actions like gulping or trembling or crying. Those things are all about writing at the head level. It’s skimming the surface of the emotional journey your character is going through.

Emotion-driven writing is delving deep within the character and being right there in the moment, going through everything your character is as the character is going through it. It’s writing at a heart level. You don’t have to tell the reader what the character is feeling or doing. You show it.

That’s the distinction between head writing and heart writing. Head writing involves telling. Heart writing involves showing. If you can understand the difference between telling vs. showing, you will have an easier time understanding the concept of writing an emotionally engaging character.

Two Exercises To Try The best way I can think of to explain the concept of showing is through two exercises, one that gives you a negative experience and the other a positive one. You need to embrace both the good and bad when you are writing in your character’s point of view. A character needs to be third-dimensional in order to effectively engage with the reader (characters who are all good or all bad tend to be boring, too…at least in my opinion).

When you’re doing these exercises, write in first person. The closer you are to these emotions, the better you can understand how to show (instead of tell) when you’re writing your story. I encourage you to write these out as if you were writing a scene in a book. Include dialogue. Include actions. Include feelings. Pretend you are writing a play-by-play account from a time in your own life.

If (for any reason) you cannot handle doing the exercises below (esp. #1) because it’ll make things too hard on you, don’t do them.

Exercise #1: Close your eyes and remember a time in your life when you were afraid. Really scared. What was happening? What were you doing How were you feeling? What did the other person say or do, and how did that make you feel? What were you thinking? How did things progress? Go into detail. Don’t gloss over any of it. You want to get so deep into the moment, you’re going through it all over again. Write down everything as it happened, and when you’re done, end it with how things ended. Were things resolved? Were they left unfinished? (And how do you feel about that?)

Now, take a break until you relax and feel better. If you delved deep into this aspect of your past, you’ll be worked up. This is what you should experience when your character is scared, by the way. When my characters are scared, I’m scared with them.

Exercise #2: Close your eyes again, but this time remember a time in your life when you were happy. This is the happiest moment of your life. What was happening? What were you doing? How did your actions make you feel? How did the actions of others around you make you feel? What was being said and done? Who was doing and saying what. Explain everything in detail. And how did it end?

* * *

I purposely ended with a good emotion because it’s easier to walk away from a good memory than a bad one. But the point in the two exercises is to think of how you’re writing when you’re in your story. Also, think about how your body reacted as you wrote out the two exercises? Go ahead and write down what happened with your body. Did you shiver? Did you warm up? Did you smile? Did you frown? Did your eyebrows furrow? Did you grimace? Did you wince? Did you look behind you because you thought you heard something (this would apply to #1). Did your heartbeat change? Etc, etc…

Tune Into Your Body’s Cues Go into each and every single emotion with your character. Be on the journey with them. Good or bad, explore all of it. Let your body react. If your character is mad, you will probably feel your heart rate increase and your breathing go faster. Maybe you frown or grow tense. If your character is embarrassed, your face should get warm. If your character is hungry, you should get that familiar hunger pain. If your character is excited, you should be smiling. If your character finds something funny, you should either smile or laugh. If your character is in love, you should have a light feeling in your chest and smile (at least little bit).

Your body reacts to emotions you feel. When your body is reacting to what your character is feeling, you are showing. You are in the moment with your character. You are connecting on an emotional level with your reader. You are writing with your heart. This is the aim of showing.

Guest post contributed by Ruth Ann Nordin. Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors was founded by Ruth Ann Nordin and Stephannie Beman in an effort to create a website dedicated to helping the self-publisher or those thinking of self-publishing to learn about the self-publishing business.

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