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.

Novelist Cynthia Ruchti Explains How to Show Rather Than Tell A Story

Cindy Huff

Today’s post is an interview with Cynthia Ruchti, past president of ACFW, Co-founder of The Heartbeat of the Home radio ministry, and novelist.  Her novel They Almost Always Come Home has been nominated for a Carol Award. How exciting for you, Cynthia.

Tell us what it feels like to be a finalist.

My respect for the Carol Award program and for ACFW makes this especially meaningful to me. The fact that it’s my debut novel adds another layer of joy. And knowing how many excellent Women’s Fiction novels were published in 2010 puts me in awe.  

Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to help aspiring older writers continue to hone their craft. One of the hardest things to understand as a writer is show not tell.  Can you give us a definition that we can wrap our minds around?

I can watch a video of Niagara Falls and be impressed by what I see. Or I can stand at the railing and feel it rumble beneath my feet. I can feel the spray of water from as far away as the parking lot. I can experience Niagara Falls rather than watch a video of it. Showing rather than telling is a little like that. A photo of the Grand Canyon may be beautiful and inspiring. Standing on its rim, sensing it in 3-D, watching the colors change and feeling the dizziness from an overload of magnificence makes it an experience. Our readers can read about an event or an action or an emotion. Or they can feel it for themselves when we take them by the hand through a scene and invite, “Here. Let me show you.”  

Explain the difference between back story and showing?

Backstory is all that happened in the life of the character prior to the beginning of the book. As is true in real-life relationships, that backstory is not dumped on us when we first meet a person. It is revealed little by little as the relationship develops. Some of it is never revealed, either because of guardedness or because the detail is not important to the relationship, just as some details are not vital to a story. It would seem that backstory and showing aren’t related, but where they do have crossover is when a writer tries to force-feed information to the reader that could be expressed more effectively through careful and deliberate showing techniques. For instance, the writer can tell: Sixteen years earlier, when she was twelve, she lost both her parents in a house fire. Or, the writer can show: Heather stared at the small, innocent flame of the votive candle on the table between them. Ambiance. Candles and romance—a perfect match. But matches start fires, fires little girls can’t quench no matter how much they scream. She flinched at the sound of an ambulance on the street outside the restaurant. Was it on its way to the scene of a fire to pick up the charred remains of someone’s parents and comfort a twelve-year-old who doesn’t deserve comforting? The votive flame flickered and went out. On cue, the waiter plucked a butane torch from his pocket to relight the stubborn wick. Heather slapped her hand over the votive holder. Its hot rim burned into her palm. She let it burn. In that example, we see hints about what must have happened to her as a child, reasons for her fears and guilt. But the writer didn’t tell us “She’s afraid. Her parents died. It was all her fault.” We experience the guilt with her. We see her wrestle with the internal conflict that will likely color the entire book. As readers, we feel what she felt, as if living it out rather than reading about it.

Is telling ever good?

Definitely.  It’s far more frequent to find too much telling and too little showing, but the reverse can be true. Showing takes more words, generally speaking. Sometimes the story calls for a brief relating of a fact. “The clock struck one. The mouse ran down” is far more effective in that case than “She watched the minute hand inch its way toward the new hour. What was that movement behind the clock face? A shadow. A small, terrifying shadow skittered across her field of vision. With quickened pulse, she clutched her sweater closed at the neck, as if that would help. Something was in the room with her. The splattering of goosebumps told her so. The clock hand moved. It moved again. One o’clock. One chime. One shadow with four legs and a worm-like tail. A mouse!”

Besides dialogue what other ways can a writer show?

Internal thoughts can convey effective showing in storytelling. Heather flinched. She could still smell smoke in the air. Sixteen-year-old smoke. How long, Lord? How long before he asks me why I’m the one woman in Lake Tahoe who doesn’t appreciate a quiet evening by the fire? How long before I have to tell him that I made myself an orphan?

Showing emotion or reaction through body language or something the reader can visualize helps readers feel engaged in the scene, not just spectators. TELLING: She was cold. SHOWING: Her breath hung in brief puffs of crystallized vapor. She flipped up her hood, then tucked her hands deep into her pockets. Another dumb purchase—a fashion coat rather than one designed to protect her from the elements. Vanity wins another misery. The shiver that shook her started on the surface of her skin, but drove deeper, past muscle and sinews to raw bone.

How does POV (point of view) play into show not tell?

It’s more challenging to show when writing from a first person POV, in my opinion. In They Almost Always Come Home, the main character, Libby, shares her story from first person/present tense. Throughout the writing of the book, I was ultra-conscious of staying away from, “I go to the cupboard. I take out a cup. I start the tea kettle. I see the condensation on the outside of the stainless steel.” But to stay in a strict first person/present tense format, those boring moments would be natural. I worked hard to find creative ways to get the point across without serving as a sleep aid for my readers. First person/present tense seemed to fit the story and help draw the reader into Libby’s life, her rational and irrational thoughts, her fears and moments of courage.

There are times in a novel that summary is used to move the story along. Some may confuse telling with summary. How are they different and when should summary be used?

This may be personal opinion, but in those rare times when summary might be necessary, I believe it’s still possible to show that information rather than tell it, as a journalist might, or as we might read in a nonfiction piece. Heather considered her options. She imagined how many steps she’d need to get from the table to the front door, and if she could cross the room while he bent to pick up his napkin. No, running had never gained her the distance she’d craved. She could tell the truth. For once. The bile climbing her esophagus vetoed that option. She could concoct another lie, one as intricate and tantalizing as the béarnaise sauce on the uneaten steak in front of her. “I’m fine,” she said. Lying came so easily.

Any other points you’d like to make regarding show not tell?

Finding ways to show an emotion rather than telling it almost always enriches the scene. Readers are pulled into the life of the character, which makes the book harder to put down, the story harder to leave, even temporarily. Many writing craft books delve into the subject of showing rather than telling. Almost all of them propose that emotions like fear, love, hatred, embarrassment, shame, guilt, anger can be expressed most effectively without using those words but with painting a picture of how the character’s body and mind react to those emotions.

Cynthia, thank you so much for sharing I think you’ve made a clearer distinction for us on the subject. Before you go please tell us about your latest writing projects.  

Tapping into the same storytelling principles and the same undercurrent of faith present in my novels, I participated in a devotional collection that will release in the fall of 2011 from Summerside Press—His Grace is Sufficient…But Decaf is Not. I’m also working on the final chapters of a novella collection titled Cedar Creek Seasons (Barbour Publishing), based on the charming town and even more charming characters of Cedarburg, Wisconsin. I’m also working on another full-length novel for Abingdon Press. Which reminds me. I’d better get back to writing! But please know the world stops when readers contact me. Interacting with readers through Facebook, Twitter, via email, or through blogs like this one motivates me to keep writing. Thanks for the opportunity to connect with your blog friends, Cindy. www.cynthiaruchti.com