Emotions in Fiction

In her book Creating Characters Kids Will Love, Elaine Marie Alphin devotes at least three chapters to recalling and using our own childhood memories to create compelling characters in our works of fiction. She explains the process this way:

            Capture and record your childhood memories on paper or computer.

            Record in particular they way you felt during those incidences.

            Listen to family stories and record them.

            Observe today’s children and record their speech, actions, attitudes.

            Learn how to put yourself in today’s children’s places, with their thoughts and emotions.

            Blend all of these elements together to create incredible kid characters.

Jean Matthew Hall

Early on in the book Alphin details the process by which she recalls her childhood memories. She emphasizes capturing the emotions she experienced when those memories were originally created.

She says on page 53:

Writing fiction is completely different from writing your memoirs. Using your experiences in fiction is a way to show your readers the deeper truth of what memory has taught you…Do this by letting yourself make changes in what actually happened, while holding on to the reality of your emotions.

Episodes in real life can be unresolved, but your fiction should build to a climax that allows your main character to come to terms with the event still haunting your memory.

I experienced this first hand recently–not with writing fiction, but with memoirs I was writing to submit to an anthology. Like all anthologies this book has a narrow focus on the types of stories to be included. On top of that the guidelines specify what kind of take-away value to include in each story. In other words, these aren’t to be simply “feel good” stories, they are all to point to one thing–the true spirit of Christmas.

First, I had to identify the “true spirit of Christmas.” Sounds easy on the surface–but it took some time to refine and distill my thoughts.

For several days I racked my brain trying to remember the 61 Christmases of my life and trying to sift out incidences that would meet the criteria for this book. After three days of this I called in the heavy artillery–my husband, Jerry. He can’t remember where he lays his glasses today, but he can remember in vivid detail every incident that has occurred in our life over the past 42 years.

He talked, I listened. He reminded me of a couple of things that might fit. Then, like the wise man he is, he left me alone to “cogitate” as my Daddy always said. He left me alone to ramble through those memories.

As I rambled I began to feel those emotions that had locked the memories into my head. One memory led to another, and that one led me down the path to another. My fingers flew over the keys as the memories tumbled into view. I laughed when I typed certain people’s names. I cried as I typed the details of some  incidents. I cringed when I remembered certain places.

I wasn’t typing words–I was typing my emotions. And that made the telling of the STORY behind each incident flow like warm maple syrup. Having that clear focus in mind made the take-away value of each story rise to the top effortlessly. As I experienced those emotions again I was able to tap into details that I had long forgotten, or so I thought.

Brain research clearly indicates that it is emotion that creates strong connections in our brains, and those connections result in memories. It is also emotion that causes buried memories to come to the surface whether we want them to or not.

And all of us writers know that it is emotion that connects our readers to our characters and to our stories.

I do believe God really knew what He was doing when He created us to be emotional beings. Beings who feel, who respond, who connect to other human beings in real life, and in great fiction, too.

Emotion. It adds a whole new dimension to our stories.