Thursday, October 16, 2008

Creating emotional depth

To the very few people who read this blog--apologies for the long gap in updates. Since I last posted I had a baby (#5) and moved from Germany back to the United States. I've also been deep in revisions (finished, at least for now), and I am only beginning to come up for air.

One of the things I love reading but is hard to pull off is emotional depth. I think that there are some key elements we need to know for this to work:

What the MC wants most
What they fear most
What their safety nets are

And then, as authors, we need to rip away that safety net so that they can't just act on a surface level--they have to be desperate enough to do more than they thought they could do, sacrifice enough to earn what they deep down most want.

I don't think this is enough, though. I think to reinforce this we need to look at the details. No doubt you've read books that have a cool concept but come off sort of soulless, even if the characters supposedly have these things. I'm still thinking about this problem, but I believe that the reader isn't shown convincing evidence that these wants and fears really matter. I think you do that by building in small details into the story and letting them take on larger significance. The details need to be personal. I can't explain without major spoilers, but read Wendelin van Draanen's Flipped. Look how that boy solves his problem at the end. His actions mean something because of the details we already know about himself and Julianna. (Flipped is a great example of any number of things going right--you really don't need an excuse to go read it right now!)

I think sometimes authors get headed in the right direction, but don't pull hard enough, don't devastate their characters enough. It's okay to be nice in real life, to not react, to calm one's emotions--but in a book, it has to be larger than life. Be cruel. Let your character fall. Let him face his worst demons. Make her sacrifice more than she thought she'd have to, more that she thinks she can. Then any victory they have will be sweet.

For more on this discussion, see Verla Kay's board.