Spiderweb of Understanding, a Puny Guide to Writing Emotions

So you made up a character you are fond of? Well done!

Let your character come to life. You know the drill: a face, a body, a CV, a past, jobs, families, friends, past lovers, nick names (cool and nasty ones), pets, favorite drinks, tattoos, scars, allergies and whatnot. The being of the character forms gradually in front of your mind’s eye. Mannerisms give a vivid stroke. Borrow them from people you know, if you must.

Almost there! Your character is fleshed out, but still a bit flat. Facts and habits do not add up to a realistic figure. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. The magic potion to add depths, is labeled – no, not unicorn tears – the character’s emotions.

Make the character damaged goods. Give them anxiety, traumas, awkwardness, short fuses, disgust with themselves/the world, or melancholy. Give them contradicting feelings. It’s even better, if you give them your contradicting feelings. Why? If it’s your heart throbbing with your past’s poison and hurt, your writing voice becomes raw, natural and authentic.

This is the delicate spiderweb of understanding between the reader and your character (and you as a writer).  That’s when the bonding begins. This fundamental comprehension of interactive emotional responses is the key to a caring reader.

e·mo·tion (ĭ-mō’shən), noun

  1. any strong agitation of thefeelings actuated byexperiencing love,hate, fear,etc., and usually accompanied bycertain physiological changes, asincreased heartbeat orrespiration, and oftenovert manifestation, as crying orshaking.
  2. in Science and Medicine: Apsychological/mental state thatarises spontaneously rather thanthrough conscious effort and issometimes accompanied byphysiological changes; a feeling
  3. Word Origin and History: 1570s, “a (social) moving, stirring, agitation,” from MiddleFrench émotion(16c.), from Old French emouvoir “stir up” (12c.), from Latinemovere“move out, remove, agitate,” from ex- “out” + movere “to move”. Sense of “strongfeeling” is first recorded 1650s; extended to any feeling by 1808.

Thanks Thesaurus, that’s kind of helpful. You noticed? The semantic use of the words emotion and feeling? Are they the same thing? Are they interchangeable? Not exactly.

The Difference: Emotion, Feeling

Antonio D’Amasio, professor of neuroscience at The University of California and author of several books on the subject, explains it as: “Feelings are mental experiences of body states, which arise as the brain interprets emotions, themselves physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli. (The order of such events is: I am threatened, experience fear, and feel horror.)” – (from Thebestbrainpossible, they have lots of interesting stuff.)

The Lowest Common Denominator

If we talk about emotions, we have to talk about the twelve core emotions common in, and understood by, all humans. It’s our inbuilt basic software for recognizing, expressing emotions, our fundamental tool for communication (and deception).

Interest, Joy, Surprise, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, Contempt, Self-Hostility, Fear, Shame, Shyness, andGuilt.  Isn’t that a good starting point? Twelve emotions everybody has and equally understands.

So, how do we perceive these emotions?

We observe. For those who observe for breakfast, try cold reading.

The facial play, the body language, the tension in the voice tells us far more than the actual spoken information. And that’s the way to write it.

These three components (face, body, voice) give you a whole array of descriptive information to  paint a suitable picture. You might feel tempted to carefully describe everything, or hinting too much. DON’T! Pick one or two – at most three – leading indicators, from different modalities, and let the reader work out the rest.

Why the bother?

Why is it important to have, and to understand emotions? Events occur. We perceive them. We process them. They have meaning to us, depending on our temperament, mood, personality, and motivation. Eventually we react, or act: emotionally, physically and intellectually. Molded out of our brain, our characters do the same.

Show, don’t tell. A practical guide:

  • Don’t use emotion words.

We usually call a spade a spade. That’s good in efficient conversations in business, at work, but it’s painful in a short story. Actually in any story/poem/song whatsoever. You lose your emotional momentum and impact on the reader. Is your character angry, happy or sad?

  • Example: ““He fell all by himself. Clumsy, like a child.” The other man on his right and the policeman, I gave my forms to, laughed. The smell of ethanol and urine hit me. It was a roaring filthy laugh, a laugh you laugh at a salt covered foaming snail, or at a cringing burning spider. The man on his left pulled a lighter out of his pocket. Benny whined and jerked back as far as he could. I had to swallow hard, clench my teeth, so no reaction escaped me. ” – from “The Lion Roars“, part 2, by Ramona Darabant
  • Aaaand Action!

To show how a character feels, use his/her actions. It’s maybe the easiest way. Orient yourselves on what you do, when you are angry, in love, sad, or scared. Observe others coping with their emotions. If the character is angry, show tight lips, pale face and hands balled to fists. You can try sudden forceful (unbalanced) movements too, or heavy breathing.

  • E: “From somewhere outside, they dragged Benny in, hands cuffed behind his back. He stumbled forward, face pale and bright, eyes wide, shining with terror and relief. He was scared to death. From the stains on his clothes, I could tell he had wet his pants. This was, what a man on death row looks like. Nausea greeted me. God! I had to push that thought out of my head fast.” – from “The lion roars ” part 2, by Ramona Darabant
  • Perception in Writing Emotions

Usually everyone tries to simplify complex information. We filter the unusual, the not fitting information out to create meaning. Emotions, feelings change the way we see the world, the same way. They put filters between the world and our eyes, they change the lighting and the sound. Suddenly we notice details, we never had before. Or we do not notice what’s important…

  • E:”Thick grey clouds rush down the western slope of the mountain. They soften the lights and the sounds. The wind turns the air in the tea house cold and damp. Bolin worries about the pain the coming season will bring for his father, and closes the screen door. The crickets chirp into the clacking of the whispering bamboos, but they grow tired rapidly and stop. The governor sits by the fire, lighting his pipe, listening to the hints coming from the garden. Bolin prepares the cups and the tea, pours the hot water. He hands one cup to his father, but doesn’t seem to notice the growing silence.” – from “Tiger, burning…“, part 2, by Ramona Darabant
  • Setting

Easily applicable to show the mental and psychological state of your character. It mirrors the feelings, the general mood. Prepare the stage for the plot.

  • E: “I stared out of the living room window. Snowing. I didn’t bother to switch the lights on. No need for electric light chasing away the shadows in the room. It couldn’t chase away the shadows that mattered most. The grey wooly darkness of the late winter afternoon bloomed forth into the room. My old tattered shelves went up to the ceiling. The spines of the books crowded the space on the planks. They sucked up the rest of the light seeping in.” – from “The Stain“, part 1, by Ramona Darabant
  • Dialogue

Speech patterns, pacing and the choice of words change with the emotions the character is experiencing. If the character is angry, the words are strong, mostly correct and sharp, the pacing fast, the sentences short and crisp. Words behave like bullets, hitting the target. Try to match the racing heart with the racing exchange of verbal slaps. Or let a seemingly careless slowness wind up the danger

  • E: ““Your boss says, you are a capable man. A bit soft, but capable nevertheless. We’ll see about that.” He looks at his manicured nails with interest. He nodded a tiny bit, and the men shoved Benny into my back. I felt him bump into me, grab for my jacket and going down unto his knees. The man chuckled and waved a hand. “So collect your garbage and go.”” – from “The Lion Roars“, part 2, by Ramona Darabant.
  • Now overdo it!

Humans feel. They go over the top. They are fascinating and illogical creatures. In highly emotional situations, positive and negative feelings simply override the intrinsic logic of a character. Be aware, that this also means that the character has a low ability to think things through. Make them kiss harder, break down sobbing, kick, scream, throw and break stuff, knock out some teeth.

  • PRACTICE! Practice, practice. Go do it now. Go, gogogogo.

#2 the lion roars

PART 1 – LIQUID PEACE

 

PART 2 – PATIENT PAPER 

The police station was accommodated in an old building, a school from the 19th century.

It took me three hours to get anywhere near Benny.

They had me fill out seven forms, both sides, all identical. The policeman in charge ripped two forms apart, and I had to start again. “Hand slipped.” His comment slapped my ears. This was nothing but mile high harassment. I knew it. The police man knew it, and I tried not to get too angry.

Then they had me write down what happened from the phone call on, till now.

Time delaying tactics. Maybe they searched and bugged my apartment right about now. They must have turned Benny’s upside down already.

 I tried to remember, if there was anything suspicious in my flat, something that could get me in jail.

Nothing to hide…

No political literature, beside what was permitted and encouraged. Some family photos, but I’m the only one left alive, so no danger on that end. No newspapers or magazines, no radio – lucky me. Only cigarettes, coffee and booze and dirty laundry.

Still, they told me to wait.

On the other side of the dirty window, the sky caught fire on the margins. The sun would be up in less then half an hour. Exhaustion burned under my eyelids, like sand. I attempted to close them, it stung like salt on an open wound. I feared my eyelids wouldn’t go all the way down. I pushed with with my fingertips against them. The burn eased a tiny bit, only to be replaced by headache. Benny mattered now most. As soon as I opened them, the artificial light made them water. I had to focus on Benny.

 From somewhere outside, they dragged Benny in, hands cuffed behind his back. He stumbled forward, face pale and bright and full with terror and relief. He was scared to death. From the stains on his clothes, I could tell he had wet his pants.

This was, what a man on death row looks like. Nausea greeted me. God! I had to push that thought out of my head fast.

At first glance there seemed nothing wrong with him, only a split lip. His wet hair stuck to his sweaty forehead. I was three feet away from him. I could reach out, but I knew better than that.

The uniform holding  his left elbow grunted. “He fell all by himself. Clumsy, like a child.” The other man at his right and the policeman, I gave my forms to, laughed. The smell of ethanol and urine hit me. It was a roaring filthy laugh, a laugh you laugh at a salt covered foaming snail, or at a cringing burning spider.

The man on his left pulled a lighter out of his pocket. Benny whined and jerked back as far as he could. I had to swallow hard, clench my teeth, so no reaction escaped me. The uniform at his right lifted his right elbow, forcing him down. His face got close enough to the flame that he could have breathed it out. He did nothing. He just trembled.

Behind me, the slick voice from the telephone harrumphed. The man put away his lighter, and the other uniforms straightened up. Everything went silent.

“So you are friends with Jews and Hungarians, doctor?” That man… The hair on my neck stood on end. Benny’s face fell, he winced. Slowly, I turned around. “Uncuff.” His voice is barely audible, but the uniforms obeyed. Clicks and a sigh could only mean, Benny was free now.

The man leaned with his elbow over a filing cabinet, posture most casual. He was bigger than me, wiry stature. He had broad forehead, a long crooked nose, broken once but healed well and bushy brows. His dark eyes seemed to sparkle with mischief.

From the edge of his lips hung a lit cigarette. Ash clung to the paper. His clothes were elegant, no uniform, coat and shoes handmade. He blew smoke through his nostrils right into my face. I didn’t breathe. Manicured hands, I noticed. Nothing cheap about this man, this was no foot soldier. This was someone, a big someone. This was an intelligent, well educated high ranking officer. He smiled a peaceable smile, perfect teeth hid behind his lips.

This man could only mean trouble.

I steadied my voice. “Only this one.” What a stupid thing to say! My head was empty, there was nothing witty to say.

“Your boss says, you are a capable man. A bit soft, but capable nevertheless. We’ll see about that.” He looks at his manicured nails with interest.

He noded a tiny bit, and the men shoved Benny into my back. I felt him bump into me, grab for my jacket and going down unto his knees.

The man chuckled and waved a hand. “So collect your garbage and go.”

med bay snippets # 3

Is this one of your stupid jokes, Rains? What do you mean with, “we lost Decker”? He’s hooked to E-bed 2, in quarantine, thanks to you. Care to elaborate? He raises an eyebrow.  I know the doc doesn’t approve that I ripped off the seal. The best I could do, to trigger the alarm.

I shake my head, but plunk down into the seat, the doctor offers me. He pushes a cup of fresh coffee over to me, and glances down his watch. I know perfectly well, that what I’m about to say is… It sounds batshit crazy, even to me.

Look doc, I’m… I don’t know. I – I just – I have to tell someone. Makes me feel less…

Disoriented? Distressed? The doctor offers. I know he means to be helpful. But…

This is a report. I keep telling myself. I have to warn everybody. Doc Wellington has to keep his cake-hole shut. I tell him, before I let the Captain in on this… Whatever this is.

I can’t meet his gaze. Those eyes,  they accuse, they see through, they strip you bare.

I nod and take a sip from the freshly brewed hot dark liquid. My mouth burns…  This is a report. I will burn less, when I talk. I need to get this out of my system.

You know, some hours ago… Down on Chimon, when Decker knocked himself out, and I had to haul his heavy ass back? 

The doctor nods.

I… I think something happened to Decker. Uh, he said some very weird things… Some, uh, really disturbing stuff… I don’t think he was himself.

The man sitting opposite to me,  fixes me with his blazing eyes. Even though I’m not looking at him, I feel two hot spots resting on my cheeks.  As if two wasps had decided to sting me simultaneously.  Just freaks me out. He harrumphs politely, and  folds his fingers into a praying gesture.

Well, delirium is a very strange mental state. He begins explaining, but this is bullshit. But this is not that easy. It can spook anyone. I don’t like how he shrugs. There are documented cases, where people started speaking tongues, even ancient greek or latin… His patronizing smile turns my guts.  And it was a most stressful situation. Acidic taste seeps on my tongue, and I force my stomach back down. I shake my head.

THIS IS NOT WHAT I MEAN!  Not at all. I nearly left him on the surface! I have his full attention now, he leans forward.  I nearly left him on the surface, because he freaked me out. 

The solar storm damaged the engines of the landing pod, upon reentry.  And the com.  I have to admit, the landing was less than optimal, and it’s my fault, that Decker got nearly killed on spot. He kind of rescued me, and got his oxygen tank damaged. 

My hands leave the cup alone and I raise them, palms up. Shrugging palms.

First everything was normal. Well, as normal as being stranded in a volcanic eruption zone on an unstable planet. Normal apeshit crazy stuff.  The man in front of me scoffs.  A sense of humor is always a good sign. That’s what they tell you in the military. A residual coping mechanism, when everything else is beyond repair.

Got him into the nearest pick-up area.  That was when his oxygen got down into the red zone. He said that he won’t survive this, that the drugs aren’t working properly, that something was wrong.  Then… I swallow.  

Then, uh… He screamed! He screamed for three minutes straight. It was, it was , uh nauseating. It must have hurt so badly. He screamed for his mother… I – I-  Oh, God…

Take your time… It must have been hard to listen to a man dying. 

I cannot hold back, to my surprise – I sob.

Uh, he said that he is going to enjoy this. And that I will enjoy this too. He’d make me…

med bay snippets #2

The soft purring of the monitoring alarm on my watch wakes me, by vibrating. I’m up…

I tell the watch and it recognizes my voice. The command kills the alarm.

Sleeping at the med bay is seldom a good idea, and sleeping at a working station – uh, table – is downright irresponsible. I rub my face into some kind of wakefulness and wish I could rub my back into a painless state.

I wish I would have slept in one of the E-beds, but shake my head at the idea. The beds are semi-autonomous, so they can keep an exhausted man in stasis, till he gets all the tiredness out of his system. No matter how long that may take.

In case you are the ship’s doctor, this is a very bad idea. They tell you that in doctor’s school. Don’t get high on E-beds pain or sleep medication. I guess some of my colleagues must have tried, during their long trips to the Kepler System.

I have Lieutenant Decker in one. The screen above his E-bed flashes red.

Let’s check you then. 

I download the most recent parameters the bed has measured to my watch. I throw out my thumb and index above its display to activate the tablet function. Blood pressure: 100 to 80. Good, pulse: 110. Almost okay. Oxygen saturation: 85%. Not okay… Breathing frequency dwindling under 10. Bad. I shake my wrist to retract the tablet. The antidote is wearing off.

Load E-bed 2 with enough Naloxone. Doctor Oscar Welligton, authorization 00.01, code 672779-0.

The unconscious man in front of me looks like he just hopped from the grim reapers grasp, with a nearly translucent, pale skin.

What a disappointment… I do not recall Decker to be a genius, or  even smart. The flashing red on the E-bed monitor stops. His breathing improves visibly, oxygen saturation climbs above 90%. That’s the spirit, Lieutenant. 

This bloke finds the most pleasant way to go. Fearless, without the hunger for oxygen, without the hunger for life. I make a mental note to stock every suit – at least mine – with enough morphine to kill an elephant. This is a manageable last resort.

It is a stroke of genius to use morphine to save himself from asphyxiation. The question remains, if he’s left with cerebral damage. No one knows how long he was cold out, or even breathing… After all, Rains is not to be trusted with precise observation about his colleagues. If I recall correctly, he even broke Decker’s nose in a brawl a month ago.

How’s the lieutenant? 

The captain’s voice rings through the med bay. The com is in override mode on my watch.

Barely alive. I answer. That’s that.

Any permanent damages? 

Can’t tell… Sleeping beauty has to wake up on his own. The morphine still has  about two hours to the  pharmacological half-life. Ask me again in two hours. 

The Captain seems satisfied, and the com dies down. I pull the footage from Decker’s and Rains’ suits.

med bay snippets #1

I look at my bandaged hand in the unnatural green light of the exam room. Nasty… That’s what I would say, if my mouth would do its job. Lips and tongue are swelling and numb. I try not to be too suspicious by licking them. I bet, if you eat a swarm of angry hornets, it would feel the same. Not the regular ones, but the big, Japanese ones, with mean attitude.

Oz is smiling at me, like he always does, when I get into trouble. It’s an equally patronizing and cheering smile, reserved for fuck-ups like me. It’s the smile of a big brother I never had. I’ve seen him do this with his patients too. I can almost hear his habitual mantra.  Unbelievable!

Oz jumbles on his sterile gloves. Elegant trick, how his long slim fingers do the opposite of striptease. Now comes the folding, his fingers clench into a praying gesture. I call it The-praying-Oz.

Hibernation unit. Ate my hand. 

My mangled palm leaks through the bandages. The black stain seeps through the cloth I wrapped around the hand.

I hate this part. The peeling away of bandages, the revealing of hurt, skin, muscle and sinew, maybe bones. The heavy lid traps not only fingers and palm, but the momentum of damage. The will to destroy, the idea to kill needs dear payment. Maybe I pay with more than my blood and my  fine motor skills. My breathing is fast, but not because of pain. I switch my pain sensors off, when I’m about to pull a stunt. To pull a stunt… That’s what Oz calls getting into trouble. Breathing. Fast and shallow, which is a problem. I feel the swelling starting down my throat.

This is bad. I sure hope Oz tries to get me to speak, so he’ll notice. Come on Oz, do your magic! I cheer him on mentally. 

How did you hurt your hand? Tell me!

Oz’s eyes lock on mine. Guided missiles…

I’ll pull the footage afterwards.

They just look like laser guided death on a mission. Thank God, my mouth is out of function, or I might be telling him the truth.

Mffpfen…felin …Ifaf…wetwiiin…it. 

Ah, yes, the perks of drug allergies. Not having to care about the tension in your voice, when you are lying.

My pen is safe, don’t worry about that… Of course, I won’t tell him that I was meddling with the security protocol of that hibernation tank.

I swallowed codeine beforehand and brought a broken ampule. I already swapped it with the one on the table he did not give me, when I stumbled in.

What? Why are you talking so funny?! Epinephrin. Now!  

Oz jumps out of my field of view. Better hurry…

He slams the epipen into my thigh. There they are, the angry hornets with attitude flooding my leg, or is it my lungs? Feels like drifting…

Look at me! Focus!  

I don’t think so….

What about dreams?

 – the struggle to get a grip on dreams and ideas –

A dream is a delicate, fickle thing. Only those who understand that it is alive, will  be able to touch it, to sense its presence.

As a living thing, it desires to remain where it is. Opposed to changes, there is not much of a choice, but to follow the laws of entropy. It wants to stay undisturbed, in the dark, the warm and secure place… It struggles erratically when unearthed, winds itself from your grip – my grip, at least.

There are other ripe dreams and ideas with brilliant, vibrant colors, glowing from below the surface of the subconscious waters. Acting as perfect homing beacons for motivation and desire…

But this all feels like catching smoke with bare hands. 

So? What is the nature of a dream? 

For one, it is a mirror image to its creator, not only mirroring but comforting its creator. 

A dream always has a purpose, a mission. It serves its creator, the best it can.

Broken off of intentions and phantasies, it is a shard mimicking its creator.  Besides that, it is a  fractal of imperfection and  inaccuracy, distorting the emptiness within the unknown regions of a human mind. It bears the innate inertia of its origin, the legacy of a chemicals soaked addicted brain. It is summoned into view, by a tireless, impatient heart, fueled by some kind of desperate hope.

It becomes a clouded copy, because the creator is bound to love it, to believe in it… To nurture it…

This fractal is imposed upon the usual paths the conscious thinking moves (also upon the strings, hooks, shortcuts and backdoors within), it creates regions of power – traps, basically.  Regions of desire and  fear, regions of gravity. Loops. Regions of enlightenment, if exposed and recognized. Their pull is barely recognizable, but it bends the ways of ideas.  A region revisited in a short time, easily becomes a habit.  And with short time I mean the matter of 3 to 6 weeks.

A habit… This is when the consciousness loses the game.  This resilient, contagious structure becomes a habitual thinking pattern. The dangerous bit: its invisibility and its invasiveness.

This marks a blind spot… An untrained conscious is quick with swallowing blind spots. It doesn’t even hesitate with denial about the sole fact of incorporating it… 

So what can one do? Stay focused? Wait for an accidental find? Hunt for it?  How do you hunt for something invisible?

 

poems by my weird grandma

VIOLETS

(This is a part from an ongoing project, a series of short stories)

Violets, violets in the shadows /

let’s tell truth / if you must

violets, violets beneath the gallows /

Upon my hazel stick / I trust

turn three times in the shallow grave /

turn three times in midnight’s way

 

violets, violets in the shadows /

let’s tell truth /if you must

violets, violets beneath the gallows /

the east wind is not just a gust

the white widow bird calls from the  fir tree

seen and heard only by those, who are free.