Besides having conflicting desires, well-crafted characters have conflicting emotions and emotional responses toward each other. These emotions are not driven so much by the character’s values as by 1) cultural preferences, 2) previous experience, and 3) primitive drives, according to Nancy Cress. Examples she gives are 1) you secretly enjoy your boorish brother’s crude jokes, but you’re repelled by them too, 2) you like your boss but don’t trust her because of her reputation for firing people easily—and you want to keep your job, 3) you’ve become homeless and are starving, but you know stealing is wrong, yet you must eat.
How can you portray mixed emotions in fiction? By showing the differing emotions in separate scenes, show conflicting emotions in the same scene, and by using character thought and narration to explain the contradiction.
Here are a couple of possible scenarios:
-Alternating scenes of “I love you” with scenes of “I hate you.” (Read the Nanny Diaries)
-In one scene, I love you right now alternates with I hate you in the next minute. Do this with caution, as the characters need to be consistent to be believable. Don’t allow a character to act in a sloppy or confusing manner. Do this by showing each emotion separately in earlier scenes before combining contradictory feelings. Be sure that the motivations and forces creating the emotions are clear.
Depict emotion through heated dialog, bodily responses, emotional actions like a slap across the face, tears, a middle finger, or through character thoughts. These are all great for subtext. Read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to see much of this in action.
You will not depict emotion through telling narration, although you can narrate why a character feels as she does. Be careful with this because it can be detached and slow the pace of your scene, although here the omniscient voice can work if the scene has been set-up and offers a fresh perspective. Be sure that you fully understand the contradictions in the minds of your characters and, without overwriting, make it more complex and dramatic. Metaphors are helpful with this.
- Identify what emotions your characters are feeling.
- Have you prepared the groundwork for these mixed feelings by dramatizing the causes of the emotions?
- Decide how best to portray the conflicting emotions—in separate scenes, in the same scene, through narration, or in a combination of these.
- Have you included enough emotional indicators for the reader to share each emotion the character feels?
Prompt: Write a scene about a person whose reputation rests on the appearance of an inanimate object. (Wood, The Pocket Muse)
Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Robert Olen Butler, From Where We Dream