Five Ways To Give Your Characters Emotional Depth

Good stuff. Well written characters who are like real people is my favorite.

K.M. Allan

Creating a character isn’t all physical description and heartbreaking backstory.

Well, a lot of it is, but it’s not just that. You need to round out that tall, dark-haired beautiful orphan with some emotional depth. The kind that will keep your readers turning the page and recommending your stories.

They’ll do this because they’re invested in your books. And they’re invested because they relate to the characters. They might not be tall, dark-haired, beautiful or an orphan, but they know how it feels to miss family, to never find the right pant length, or to be judged by their looks.

Creating a relatable connection to universal struggles is key and ensuring your characters have emotional depth is the metal that forges that key.

Five Ways To Give Your Characters Emotional Depth

Don’t Say Emotions

Emotions are something we all feel, unless you’re a serial killer.

Writing “She was sad”

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MASTER LIST of Facial Expressions for Writers! – Bryn Donovan

Awesome. Authors, check it out. Very helpful list.

I created this list to address that challenge. The expressions are broken down by the part of the face. Note that some of them work for more than one emotion—a person might narrow their eyes out of vindictiveness or skepticism, for instance, and their face might turn red out of anger or out of embarrassment.

Some of them require a little more explanation on your part. You’ll have to say what she’s glaring at, or if his face is contorting in rage, or grief, or what. And not all of these will work for every character—it depends on what they look like and how they generally react to things.

Some of these aren’t exactly facial expressions, but useful for dialogue tags. In many cases I’ve given several ways to describe the same thing. While I have included some longer phrases, they are not proprietary and it’s fine to use them.

Click through to the ORIGINAL POST HERE to read the facial expressions. I am sure you’ll find a few to put to good use.

Using Triggers to Poke at a Character’s Emotional Wound

Very helpful information for crafting realistic characters using emotional triggers.

Kobo Writing Life

By Angela Ackerman

When it comes to acknowledging what hurts us, the old saying, Deny, deny, deny! comes to mind. Why? Because in real life we don’t want to appear weak, so when we suffer emotional pain, we often stuff it down deep and paste on a smile as if nothing is wrong. It’s no different with our characters, and in both cases, refusing to deal with wounding events carries a steep price.

Unresolved psychological pain doesn’t go away and hiding it only leads to dysfunction and unhappiness.

Emotional trauma is, by nature, painful. When it happens, our feelings are laid bare. So it’s no wonder that last thing anyone wants to do is unpack that vulnerability again to work through it. Avoidance seems better, but it leads to dysfunctional coping methods like bad habits, flaws, biases, and emotional reactiveness.

This type of emotional shielding keeps people and further possible…

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Realistic Character Changes

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With the exception of books I read for review, during my regular reading times I have this bad habit of reading more than one book at a time. I’ll start reading a book and then stop and mark it off so I can go think about it. My intention is to come back after thinking about it for a while but I just end up reading something else. I do come back to it, it’s just. I have a problem.

Anyway, so I’m reading a few books, one of which happens to be C.S. Lakin’s Writing the Heart of Your Story (part of The Writer’s Toolbox Series) and for these kinds of books I am never really finished with them because to me they are part of my study material. So, it is while sitting in the bed, pillow prompted up behind me (while trying to sit as straight as possible because my computer cord has a short in it) that I decided to put my kindle down a moment (see? SMH. Get it together EC) and share my thoughts. I am especially excited because my husband is watching the football game while I’m drafting this which means he doesn’t particularly want me in his face. So, I thought I’d write until I feel like bothering him again.

In Chapter 15, Character Arcs (she dislikes that term by the way), Lakin explains how change for characters come in stages. This caught my attention because I come across this a lot. That is, the characters in the story aren’t given enough time to decide or come upon an epiphany that makes sense. What I mean by making sense is that they are too easily convinced, swayed, or compliant at times where they should be pushing back against the grain.

If the character hates ice cream, it’s unrealistic for him to be convinced to eat an ice cream bar after one conversation with his brother (who loves ice cream) taunting him about it. That’s not realistic. In real life, he would not be so compliant, in fact, he will probably get upset that his brother would even offer him such a treat. There will likely be resistance. Lakin explains it so much better than I do:

“Remember, you have to change characters in stages, starting with their opinions and attitudes and eventually changing their core beliefs.”

– Opinions
– Attitudes
– Core Beliefs
– Self-Image
She goes on to say:

“You can’t have a character talking to someone about the death penalty (which he is all for) and just through that one conversation have his belief changed (fully against) right at the heart of his core belief.”

When I read this I had to share it with you all because it’s such valuable advice that I will definitely be heeding.

At the end of the day, everything about our characters has to reflect that of real people. If in real life it will take someone a while to warm up to change, our characters have to resemble the same. We have to get out of the way of the story and let the characters do their thing.

Speaking of getting out of the way I have one more tidbit. There’s something else I’m seeing more and more and that is this: the author who is so passionate about their cause that the tone of the book sounds as if we’re talking to that author more so than the characters in the story. The author’s purpose or mission is so prominent that we can’t separate the author from the characters in the story.

Let me be clear: The author will, inevitably, come through his or her work in one way or the other. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about deliberately, or inadvertently, creating characters who are just a replica of yourself.

Be sure that when you’re sending a message through books, that you aren’t inadvertently forcing your beliefs on readers. As a reviewer, the author’s personal belief is something I actually do not count toward my rating because  my job is to focus on the story, not the author’s personal life (I’m working on a separate article about my biggest challenges as a reviewer soon) but it is becoming such a problem that I may find myself taking it into consideration while rating if it gets in the way of the story too much. How do you know if you are forcing (or may appear to be forcing) your own beliefs on the reader?  If your manuscript resembles too much of the following:

  • Posting scriptures directly in text
  • Using more than one paragraph for your character to preach or pray in (this will most likely be skipped. No offense, js)
  • Characters who are too young to realistically understand the meaning of certain scriptures
  • Anything that sounds too much like overt religious or political speech

I believe anything can work just as long as it’s done right. The reason I speak so much about symbolism in writing is first because I just think it’s the best way to reach people in writing, but also because I think it’s a great way to write for those who want to send a message specifically but don’t want to be preachy. Fiction is all about the story. People want to be entertained or informed but most of all they want to disappear from this world a moment and get lost in another one: your book.

This means you want to make it their worthwhile. If you’re giving readers sermons and lessons then you’re not (technically) casting down your nets and may do more harm than good. Readers will likely be turned off, your story will fall flat, and you would have reached no one.

Also, by sermons, I don’t just mean religious in nature but any belief system that may seem forced on the reader. It can even be an age difference. Because I write Young Adult, Historical Fiction, I have to take care not to put my own adult voice inside the head of my characters (I know, we don’t like to say characters but work with me here) but to make sure that their dialogue, emotions, and actions are fitting for their age.

To do this, I try to fall back on my years of experience working with children for a reminder of what it was like to be a kid or a young person in general (or OK, a younger person).

What you can do instead is drip feed (introduce drop by drop, here a little, there a little) the message throughout the story, make it a part of the story. Maybe your character was anti that belief but in the end comes upon a revelation. Something like that but don’t make it blatantly obvious.

Remember that fiction writing is, at its core, about entertainment. Even when we do have messages (who doesn’t?), we must still educate through entertainment.

Now, pardon me while I check on Nora.


Yecheilyah Ysrayl is the YA, Historical Fiction author of eight books, most notably, The Stella Trilogy. She is currently working on her next book series “The Nora White Story” about a young black woman who dreams of taking part in The Harlem Renaissance movement and her parents struggle to accept their traumatic past in the Jim Crow south. “Renaissance: The Nora White Story (Book One)” is due for release spring, 2017. For updates on this project, sneak peek of chapters and the pending book cover release for this project, be sure to follow this blog and to subscribe to Yecheilyah’s email list HERE.

Family Tree Chart: Character Development

So last week, in a post called 3 Reasons I am Not a Professional Author, I spoke about how I started using a Family Tree to build my characters. I do this using Microsoft Word which I am learning more and more about each day. Family Trees can also be done in Microsoft Power Point.

What this method helps me to achieve is a greater depth in character development. It helps me to create a background, a foundation if you will, for my characters so that they evolve into real living people and are not just stick men and women with names. By creating a background, I can better design the main character out of the genetics of the people that came before them. In this way, I am not just making people up, but they are coming from an ancestral bloodline of sorts. Your primary characters can actually have a lineage and a family to which they belong to go with the personality your writing gives them.

Over the course of this week, I have put together a sample Family Tree and a few steps to help you to get started. I thought I would be able to accomplish this over the weekend but quickly discovered it was a lot more work than I remembered. To make this as simple as possible I will give you the steps as to do this the easiest way possible (which is not exactly how I put mine together but it works). Please understand that this is just a sample and that you can go much deeper than what is presented.  To save time, I only scratched the surface here:

Step #1: WRITE

So if you read the previous post to which I mentioned this method, you know that I don’t use a timeline when I write. I start by writing the story as it comes to me. You can use this method either way. It is however, a good idea to start writing first because the juices start to flow and you have an idea of the characters you can start adding to the chart. Once I’ve written a few pages and I have an idea of the characters, I can then proceed to build on their lives by way of the timeline. All of this is simultaneously done as I’m writing so the timeline is not completely finished in one sitting. I may get to a point in the book where I want to switch some things around or change some names. In simplest form, I’m writing the story and using the family tree to organize my characters as I move along the process. The chart also helps me to sit back and take a full view of everyone even after the book is finished, to study the characters, and to recall names quickly. It’s easier for me to look at my chart instead of rely on memory or scan the document, to recall an important feature so as not to create inconsistencies when I’m writing. I know it seems like a lot and some of you are probably asking yourself, “Shouldn’t I just write so that the emotion and descriptive language  makes the characters realistic?” Of course. The chart does not replace writing in personality and all of that good stuff, it just helps with names and family history.

Step #2: OPEN MICROSOFT WORD

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Step #3: GO TO THE INSERT TAB

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Step #4: CLICK ON SMART ART (it is between Shapes and Chart in Microsoft 2007 & 2010)

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Step #5: When you get into Smart Art, CLICK ON THE HIERARCHY CHART and choose a chart

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Step #6: Start building, adding names and traits or whatever it is you want to add

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Remember that this is not a normal family tree. You don’t have to just add names but in this chart you will also add other important things about the character, such as height, weight, hair and eye color, etc.

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My Chart

OK so I hope that you can see this well. This is my chart which I created using a slightly different design than the Smart Art. I customized it and created my own boxes. I saved it as an image file and then used Microsoft Publisher to crop out the white spaces that come from Word.

In my chart, we see that Stella is named after her great grandmother Stella Mae.

When Blacks stepped off the slave ships and into the shoes of their new lives, their ancestral names were stripped away. After chattel slavery ended, one of the first signs of freedom was for slaves to change their names. Having started with just a first name, they wore the last names of their masters, in which the majority of them continued to wear after emancipation. Others altered their last names slightly after freedom to disassociate from their masters.  Another percentage went far as to just make up a last name, as in Booker T Washington’s case. According to his Autobiography, “Up From Slavery”,  Booker noticed while in class that many of the students had two names. So when the teacher called for his name he calmly announced “Booker Washington” so as to fit in. Later, he found out that his mother had named him “Booker Taliaferro”. And just like that he became Booker T. Washington:

“By the time the occasion came for the enrolling of my name, an idea occurred to me which I thought would make me equal to the situation; and so, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him “Booker Washington”, as if I had been called by that name all my life; and by that name I have since been called.”- Up From Slavery, Page 17, Boyhood Days

Instead of take on the last name Saddler, the first Stella decides to take the last part of her first name, Mae, and change it into May. Her family would then go on to be known as the May’s.

Interpretation of Chart:

  • Deborah was a slave on Paul Saddlers Plantation. They produce a daughter who Deborah names Stella Mae.
  • Stella Mae and John produce a son who Stella names Solomon Curtis. According to the chart, he inherits his father’s green eyes and black hair but this is an error on my part. His eyes are actually Brown like his mothers, but he inherits his father’s jet black hair.
  • Solomon goes on to have four girls: Deborah, Rebecca, Judith, and Sara.
  • Judith, the middle daughter, goes on to give birth to a daughter who she names Stella, after her grandmother.
  • We see that Judith inherits her green eyes from her father Solomon and her grandfather John. For the sake of space I did not include Judith’s mother in the sample chart; she is white.
  • Stella inherits her eye and hair color from her great great grandfather Paul. Stella’s father is also not included in the chart; he is black.

As genetics would have it, Stella is easily capable of easing on pass the color line by inheriting more external European features than African American.

3 Reasons I am Not a Professional Author

(The post where I originally mentioned this in case you missed it)

see also

Word to the Wise

Historical Fiction Without the Famous

Great advice on writing Historical Fiction.

A Writer of History

I had the pleasure of being included on a panel at the HNS Denver conference that took place from June 26 to 28, 2015. The panel topic was Recreating the Past: Historical Fiction Without the Famous. My co-presenters were Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial and Let The Read Books and Beatriz Williams, author of The Secret Life of Violet Grant and other novels. Jenny explored the contribution stories with fictional historical characters can make and why we so enjoy reading about them. Beatriz brought the marketing perspective, explaining how agents and editors look at fiction without the famous.

My role was to discuss relevant reader data and provide a writer’s perspective on creating fictional characters.

First the data about readers.

Readers characters and settingsIn the 2015 survey, 84% of readers selected ‘fictional characters within a backdrop of great historical events’. This is reflected in the favourite titles mentioned by readers where only 23% of favourite fiction mentioned concerns famous…

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