Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Does Your Character Cry?

We put our characters through a lot. Obstacles that cause
frustration. Losses that cause grief. Regrets that cause despair. It's our goal as writers to portray our characters experiencing a variety of circumstances--preferably tough ones. It can add a powerful sense of realism to our work.


So how do we show this sadness?

Ways to Show Grief
1. TEARS. The traditional way: weeping, wailing, sobbing, tears streaming down the face. This works, but can end up feeling melodramatic. You can unintentionally create a distance if your reader doesn't relate to the degree of emotions your character is feeling. Definitely don't go all flowery and soppy in your prose when your character is crying; usually simpler is better.

A few tears really do go a long way. Tears can be cliché. But don't neglect them either, or your reader will wonder why your character isn't reacting realistically.

2. BODY LANGUAGE. Slumped shoulders, flat voices, shuffling feet. Trembling hands or lips. An ache in the chest or throat. A building pressure behind the eyes or difficulty finding breath. Listlessness. All these things are great ways of showing sadness without writing the words tears, crying, or sadness.

Key concept: SHOW not TELL your characters' emotions.

3. INTERACTIONS. How your characters react to the world when they are sad is very revealing. They may shout, argue, or rant--displaying their grief by tipping into anger. They may go quiet and somber, staring off into the distance or reducing conversations to monosyllables and short sentences. They may lock themselves up in their rooms, drink to numb the pain, pretend everything is fine, or even seek out social settings where they feel alive and connected. Often judgment is skewed, and they can make (plot-interesting) mistakes while grief-stricken.

It's a Subjective Thing
Everyone has different triggers that makes him/her feel grief; what pulls the heartstrings of some people leaves other people cold and unaffected. Some readers cry over details that other don't, such as a homeless dog or a faded rose from a lost relationship. Others won't cry over a book no matter what happens in it! It depends on your readers' overall experiences and personality.

Trying Too Hard
Often if our GOAL is to elicit an emotion from our readers with a scene ("I'm going to write an intensely sad scene today, that will make everyone weep"), we will often fail to do so. The scene can feel manipulative, and people will be annoyed rather than sad. Readers can usually tell. It's better to be emotionally honest and write from your gut feelings rather than go about the scene with an overt sense of purpose.

Staying True to Your Character
How you show grief in your stories depends on your character. Is your character emotionally free and not afraid to weep in front of others? Is he or she more stoic, hiding their emotions from the world? Are they the kind who weep with a single tear--or fall to their knees wailing?

Universal Events of Sadness
Certain circumstances are universal in their ability to cause grief. Interestingly, readers don't have to have suffered the same loss or circumstance in order to feel sadness or relate to your character. Especially if you have written the scene honestly and well. These include death of a loved one, regret, loneliness, feeling rejected or ostracized, loss of a friendship/relationship, and making a hard choice or sacrifice that leads to a negative outcome (choosing to suffer).

YOUR TURN
What things in stories make you feel sadness--what sad things do you relate to?
How would or does YOUR character show sadness or grief?
Can you think of any other universal themes or events where your character would experience sadness?


31 comments:

  1. Great post, Carol! All helpful things to consider while I'm working on my last round of revisions.

    Thank you!

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  2. Great tips, Carol. Timely post for me.

    I'm writing a character who is a young widow. I'm finding interactions are very important...using subtle underlying anger, even she doesn't realize.

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  3. Yay! I found this right as I'm starting revisions! Thanks for sharing :)

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  4. Thanks for sharing your tips, Carol. Sometimes you don't expect to feel sad when you're reading a story but someone may say or do something and the mood shifts.

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  5. Thanks for the writing advice Carol! It's very thorough. If I cry when reading a book it's usually after someone the main character loves has died, or if the main character has been bitterly betrayed. I am especially thankful for your post because my MC loses her father in my book, but I felt like I skimmed the surface of her emotions.

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  6. When I first read the Hobbit I cried. The characters themselves didn't cry, but I did. That's good writing.

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  7. The word manipulative is the perfect description for an emotional scene done wrong. It should illicit emotion, not demonstrate it.

    Fab post, Carol!

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  8. Great tips on writing about sadness.

    One thing that usually makes me really sad is betrayal. Though having said that, it's one of my favorite plot twists to write. :P

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  9. Hmm, interesting. I've written a lot of emotions in my books, but how many times have my characters actually shed tears? Hmmmm....I'll have to look into this!
    erica

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  10. I've written some crying scenes, but nothing too dramatic I hope. In real life, I cry about everything (happy, sad, angry). It's extremely annoying, since I seem to have no control over it.

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  11. Hi Carol, I've written many crying scenes. But I probably should rewrite them now that I've read your post. :)

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  12. Funnily enough it's usually the scenes where the characters are being strong while talking about traumatic experiences that I start crying. It's like I have to cry for them, since they're not, or something. :)

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  13. There is nothing that puts me off more than crying characters. I'd better know them pretty well before the waterworks start or I am turned off by the book. Funny thing is that actual books rarely have crying scenes. But it is overused in manuscripts. I read somewhere about making the reader feel the tears, so that's my goal when I write sad scenes.

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  14. I find that I become more sad when reading about a character's situation and circumstances, especially if the character's reactions are subtle, rather than from reading about the character crying or overtly demonstrating grief. It can be tricky to get readers to feel the sadness and grief of our characters, but, of course, that's the goal.

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  15. Ooh, I've got a few crying scenes. There's a subplot in the novel I'm querying, all about how the heroine thinks the hero is dying... Very sad stuff. But then he gets better, and it *is* a romance, so they, ahem, have a specific scene wherein I hope their relief and happiness shows through......

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  16. When my characters are sad, I see them in my mind, I look at their body language, imagine what they'd say, and I feel what they'd feel... From that - I write the emotional scene... Often through tears.

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  17. Great post, Carol. My character cries. A LOT! But I feel like I'm going overboard with the traditional tears. Thanks for giving me some other ideas to consider. This was most helpful.

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  18. My characters only seem to cry at the lowest point, and it's not sobbing but trickling tears. There's something very off-putting for me about characters who are always weeping!

    Great post - you made me think!

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  19. Tears are shed in all my manuscripts. My current wip is the only one where the MC hasn't shed a tear so far (but a secondary character does). These are great points. Thanks, Carol.

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  20. Great points. The two MCs of my series are both resistant to crying, but for different reasons. When they finally do cry, it's hard earned. I'm one of those people who hate to feel like I'm being manipulated but love being manipulated in a subtle way. Make me feel something, but don't hit me over the head with a bunch of telling!

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  21. All my characteers react differently. Even when they are crying. Thanks for sharing all this. Useful advice.

    .......dhole

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  22. This is a great post. I love it.

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  23. There is so much useful info here. I am a big cryer-- I cry at the drop of a hat. But few authors can put me in ugly cry mode. Melina marchetta comes to mind. She can rip your heart out, and it's great. :)

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  24. I was told along the way to try not to let my main character cry too much and hold it off as long as I can so I show her sadness other ways when I can.

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  25. Nice post, Carol. In real life, I tear up over things I find meaningful, but in my current WIP, I've been working with a character who finds it hard to cry. When I'm reading, I tend to be moved to tears over loss. When I read Anna Quindlens's Every Last One, I cried all afternoon. It's a heartbreaker, and what made it work (the book) was how honest and true the writing rang. In lesser hands it could have bombed.

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  26. One of my characters cried too much. I stopped writing her story, LOL!

    Nice post!

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  27. There's a scene at the end of a movie called Without a Trace where a kidnapped little boy is returned to his mother. That scene always makes me cry.

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  28. I read somewhere (an agent's blog? publishing website?) never to have anything snotty in your MS. So I try to cut down the crying, but sometimes you just have to have it. And I've read instances where the crying was very appropriate.

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  29. I am not really good at writing emotional scenes, so I try to avoid them at any cost :) Maybe time to insert those scenes :)


    Greetings from the A to Z trail,
    Sylvia @ Playful Creative

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  30. Super post! For me the thing that touches my heart is when a character struggles with valuing herself/himself and then they overcome and become stronger.

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