Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fiona Harper on writing: Your character did WHAT?

This month, Fiona Harper continues talking about the science of emotion and how we can use it to create and motivate well-rounded characters and conflicts. 

Emotion colours the way we see the world. It flavours our experiences, making them unique. As much as we might not want to admit that we invest heavily in our emotions we do. Dr Paul Ekman, author of Emotions Revealed, even goes as far to say that when we feel an emotion, we don’t seek to challenge it; instead we subconsciously seek to confirm it.

Take the following example:

Julie is upset because she and her boyfriend Mark have gone to a party and after the first half hour he seems to have disappeared and left her while he goes off and socialises. When she gets caught up in feeling angry with him, she will absorb only information that meshes with what she is feeling – Mark is laughing with his friends and he has no time for her at all… He hasn’t even thought to see if she wanted a drink in the last fifteen minutes… He hasn’t bothered to introduce her to anyone…

Mark’s starting to sound like a real jerk, right? But maybe he isn’t. Because other information is also coming Julie’s way, but because it doesn’t fit with her upset and angry state, she’s rejecting it without realising it:

She’s forgotten that he warned her he hadn’t seen his college buddies for ten years and that he might get swept up in greeting people when he first arrived. Mark has glanced her way a number of times, but she’s ignored him, too annoyed with him to catch his eye and smile. And when he tried to bring her a drink she refused it, saying he ought to know she didn’t like it and then got crosser with him for not remembering her preferences, feeding into her anger further.

This blinkered state is called a refractory state and it can last from a few seconds to much, much longer. Its purpose is to allow us to focus on the problem in hand when there’s trouble, but sometimes, when linked to an emotion that’s not a reaction to immediate danger, it can cause more problems than it solves!

For a writer there are two big benefits in understanding and utilising this emotional refractory state:

1. It allows us to remember there really are two sides to every story, and that when both parties are ramped up and feeling emotional, there can be two wildly differing versions of events, which both people believe passionately are the truth. Great for creating believable and long-lasting conflict. In order to get your characters to see each other clearly, you’re going to have to push them out of that emotional comfort zone and start to see new things – especially the other character – in a new light.

2. If you ever want one of your characters to do or say something rash, to make a seemingly uncharacteristic decision or to react in a way that is illogical or emotionally out of proportion to what is going on, then make sure you’ve triggered some strong emotion in them – use this refractory period to your advantage! We’ve all experienced these moments of emotional blindness, where we just can't seem to think straight and do or say things we regret afterwards, and while we may not all know the science behind them, it will feel authentic to readers if you time these sorts of scenes right and motivate your characters well.

For example, Julie from the example above seems a bit high-maintenance at the moment, doesn’t she? But what if she’s felt like the wallflower her whole life? What if she thinks Mark is much better looking than her, that she doesn’t really deserve him and that one day he’ll wake up, realise it too, and dump her? Then we’ll understand that her anger is rooted in fear and lack of self-confidence, and a party full of popular attractive people where she feels she doesn’t fit in is going to push all her emotional buttons. While we still won’t think she’s being fair to Mark, we’ll understand it, which is the important thing when it comes to keeping readers engaged with our characters.

So next time you need an explosive scene, wind your characters up and let them put their blinkers on so they can have a "what did I just do!?" moment. It's so much fun.

 A little bit more on high emotional states and how to trigger them using your character’s backstory next month…

Fiona's latest book, The Guy To Be Seen With, is part of Harlequin's brand new line, KISS, and is out now

London's most eligible guy-finally snared?  

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So just who is special enough to catch his attention? Our sources reveal she's strong-willed blonde bombshell Chloe Michaels, orchid specialist and Daniel's new colleague. And rumor has it that with this tough cookie, London's very own Indiana Jones is in for the-romantic-adventure of a lifetime!

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