Emotions from Life Experiences Help Writers Build Deeper Characters

This Sunday is Mother’s Day. The first one without my dear Mom. She passed in February. As I thought about my loss, the feelings of sadness and grief gripped me. Reflecting back on that moment now that it’s past, I realized I could use those feelings in my story worlds.

I’ve read posts from writer friends who share how writing a particular book drained them because raw emotions rose up as they worked out the characters’ dilemmas. I can so relate. When my baby sister died of cancer, I couldn’t deal with the C word or with hearing happy tales of people’s recovery. My mother passed from dementia and my father from Alzheimers. Both words leave a bitter taste in my mouth.

Time has healed those initial aches. I can unwrap them when I need to find the right words to describe my character’s grief. Those emotions coat the edges of what I want to convey through my stories.

Delilah James in my upcoming release Rescuing Her Heart is dealing with guilt, anger, grief and bitterness from her late husband’s abuse. I have never known domestic abuse, but those same emotions have hounded me in other life experiences.

The older I get, I find more emotional rocks to stumble over. Ones I had no clue of as a teen or young woman. That may be why it took me years to feel confident in trying my hand at novel writing.

I noticed when asked to critique new authors WIP pages that the younger the writer, the shallower the emotional arc. It’s hard to write about married life if you’ve never experienced it. In like manner, grief may not be in their wheel-house yet. There are younger writers who have had deep-emotional trauma that, if they are willing, can channel it into their stories.

The same can be said for older writers crafting stories for middle-grade or teens. Feelings from those years have probably faded to a quiet ache, if it wasn’t extremely traumatic. So, unless they kept a journal from their youth, they may have difficulty creating a true age-appropriate character. Yet, there are older authors who have been writing for that genre for years. They’ve captured the emotional essence of youth and presented it believably on paper.

Am I saying only write from fresh emotions? Of course not. We sometimes must completely process our emotions that arose out of an event. Your emotional memories of trauma need to fade so you can heal. Only then can you have a character deal honestly with their situation. And I’m not saying you can’t write about what you’ve never experienced. Being near someone facing hard times, going through it with them, can stir up deep empathy you can use to develop a character. It comes down to the depth or rawness of the emotions experienced and how healing overcame.

As a writer, you can journal your feelings while going through a difficult time. Describe in detail how your chest ache feels. Did you lose your appetite or binge eat? How did that make you feel? Even a brief sentence expressing your angst can be a gateway in the future to unlocking those emotions when you’re ready to use them in your story.

I spent time with my parents as Alzheimers and dementia changed them. Their behavior was so different from the parents who raised me. I wrote a minor character in my contemporary romance, New Duet, who was at the beginning stages of dementia. I found some humor there from my mother’s funny comments to add to Clara’s persona.

Mom got funnier as the dementia progressed. Child-like, really. I watched my mother fade away and even more so with Covid keeping us apart. These past few years of watching my parents leave my life by measures was much harder than I imagined.

In the future, those very feelings of loss may wind their way into a new character. And for the reader the story will be richer because my life-experiences will breathe life into that character. I don’t need to focus on dementia and aging, but those same feelings of watching someone drift away can describe losing a child to illness or a loved one to substance abuse.

Have you found adding bits of yourself makes your words richer?

If you’re curious about Clara in New Duet, the e-book is free through Sunday, May 9th on Amazon.

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