“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” – Robert Frost
All joking aside, this is one of my favorite quotes when it comes to “how to write.” It’s a credo I try and hold true whenever I put words on a page. I was rereading/editing a passage from my upcoming YA novel the other day and found myself blinking away tears at the end of it. It’s about the main character having a moment with the ghost of his dead mother. It’s heart breaking, confusing, and brief incident for the main character. I’ve read the passage a hundred times and every time, I feel the emotion coming through. It’s the kind of thing I want to have happen in every chapter (though maybe not tears). It’s also the kind of writing that strikes at the very heart of what Frost is talking about.
So, how do you arrive at that point? How do you pour that physical emotion into words on the page? For me, a lot of that has to do with being able to empathize with my characters. I am able to place myself into their shoes and really tap into the emotions. In that moment, I am Danny and I’m sitting in a boat on the pond in the orchard and my mother, who’s been dead for several years now, has materialized out of the fog and is sitting across from me. And all I can think of is reaching out to touch her, which I can’t, and then asking every question that comes to mind. And then when she’s gone, I’m angry because the time was too short.
So, here’s the rub, my mother is alive… I’ve never sat in a boat in the middle of a pond. Heck, I don’t really believe in ghosts, having never seen one. But, that’s me. Danny is someone else, entirely made up from my own imagination. No one knows better how he feels than I do. And, that’s the magic of being a writer. Every ounce of your character comes from you. And you arrive at their reactions by putting yourself entirely in their shoes. It doesn’t mean that you forget who you are. You can only shape your character with what you have; emotions, experiences, etc. But, you do it through the filter of your character.
We’ve all had emotional experiences. The rush of adrenaline in a moment of excitement, the flush of embarassment, the feeling of the touch of a loved one, the sense of fear and loss that comes with death. It’s all fodder for the emotions of your characters. Use it. Channel those emotions into your characters and you’ll find them to be alive, vibrant, and believable.