Deepen Characterization by Mining Your Own Reactions

Image: collaged photos of a young man making a range of expressive faces.

Today’s guest post is by editor Tiffany Yates Martin (@FoxPrintEd). Join her on June 2 for the class Craft Believable and Compelling Characters.


Humans are infinitely complex, and creating believable, three-dimensional characters in all their colors, textures, and nuances is some of the hardest work of writing. But authors don’t have to have godlike omniscience or an encyclopedic knowledge of psychology to develop fully fleshed, realistic characters. We all have an endlessly replenishing source of reference material: ourselves.

Learning to pay deliberate, meticulous attention to how you react to and handle your own challenges and triumphs, obstacles and demons can be rich turf for growing characters readers deeply relate to and conveying them vividly on the page. Start by noticing your physiological responses—your gut reactions—and follow them to the thoughts behind them—your inner life.

Listening to Your Gut

What happens inside your body during emotional situations in your life?

You may know generally what you’re feeling at these times—sad, excited, hopeful, angry, etc.—but labeling the emotion is your higher-reasoning amygdala analyzing the data it’s receiving from your lowly little reactive lizard brain. It’s that primitive cerebellum’s immediate knee-jerk reaction we’re after first: the actual physiological sensations those emotions create inside you.

For instance, let’s say you receive a rejection letter from a submission you had high hopes for. See if you can pay attention—minute attention—to what that feels like inside you, specifically and concretely and in real time: Does your chest lift with hope, and then sink or tighten as you read the email? Does it feel heavy? Empty? Deflated? Are you breathing? What does your face feel like—tight and drawn in? Frozen? Are your eyes hot, wet? Your jaw or hands or toes clenched? Your shoulders sagging? Neck tight? Armpits sweating?

That’s valuable information—not just in identifying what’s going on inside you so you can deal with it, but for filing these visceral reactions away to draw on with your characters.

Your protagonist may not receive a rejection on her creative baby, for example, but you can mine those powerful feelings in writing about the rejection a mother might feel from her suddenly disdainful teenage daughter, or a child when her dad is too busy to look at her drawing or come to her school play, or that of an employee being fired, or a woman being left by her spouse. Rejection, like all emotions, wears many faces. How can you extrapolate your reactions when it happens to you to enrich the way you portray your characters’ reactions to their particular rejections?

Let’s say your protagonist comes home to find her spouse packing a bag and this is your initial draft of the scene:

“I’m not happy. I’m leaving.”

She froze in the doorway. “What do you mean, leaving? For how long?”

He continued meticulously folding his favorite blue work shirt. “I don’t know, Em. I just need time away.”

She offered a conciliatory smile. “Can you stop packing for just a moment? Let’s talk about it.”

This shows the action, but it doesn’t let us deeply into the POV character’s reactions that reveal so much about her.

Now let’s use some of these gut reactions you’ve paid such close attention to in yourself to bring the scene a little more viscerally to life:

“I’m not happy. I’m leaving.”

She froze, fingers gripping the doorjamb. “What do you mean, leaving? For how long?”

He continued meticulously folding his favorite blue work shirt. “I don’t know, Em. I just need time away.”

Her chest hollowed. She forced a conciliatory smile she hoped didn’t look as stiff and unnatural as it felt. “Can you stop packing for just a moment? Let’s talk about it.”

In the second example we have a clearer and more visceral idea of how his leaving is impacting her. It makes us more a direct part of the scene.

You can use this self-observational technique in a wide variety of situations, negative as well as positive, minor as well as major. What does it physically feel like inside you when you are delighted with something or someone? When you feel love or excitement or hope? What about when you are angry, or irritable, or sad? How do you viscerally react to a missed elevator, a rude customer, a fussy child?

Get into the habit of paying attention to your own responses anytime stimuli change your mood or feelings or cause a reaction in you, and you’ll create an endlessly original, realistic, relatable atlas of reactions you can reference for your characters.

Tuning In to Your Head

Now let’s dig a little deeper, beyond those physiological responses to what’s causing them.

Let’s go back to the hypothetical rejection letter. Maybe your physiological reaction is a sinking heart, a clenched jaw—but why? Objectively that’s not a stimulus that would cause a primeval fight-or-flight reaction, but our cerebellum—our higher-reasoning brain­—is feeding us thoughts that suggest to us that it is. What kind of internal messaging might be going on in your head as you read the email?

Maybe your inner life is something like, Oh, no! Not my dream agent! But she asked for the full! Dammit! I hate this business. Or maybe it’s me? This is my thirtieth rejection so far. What if the manuscript is just no good? But my crit partners loved it! What do they know, though. They’re not published either.

None of these thoughts are likely to run through your mind as literally as a news chyron like this—our thoughts are often lightning-quick impressions and reactions, rather than actual internal dialogue. But what we’re after is the gist—the mental story that accompanies whatever stimulus has made you feel whatever you are feeling…and feeds those feelings.

These thoughts are the reactions and responses that reveal to readers who your character is at the core—and letting readers experience them along with your character is a great way to paint a clearer picture of your protagonist and of the story. For instance, mining some of your own reactions in the face of rejection, you might lace some of this inner life into your scene:

“I’m not happy. I’m leaving.”

She froze, fingers gripping the doorjamb. “What do you mean, leaving? For how long?”

He continued meticulously folding his favorite blue work shirt, the one she’d spent weeks looking for so the shade would exactly match his eyes. “I don’t know, Em. I just need time away.”

Her chest hollowed. Time away from what? From her? But why? Things had been hard, yes, but they were working on it, right? How could they do that if he left? Look at me, dammit! But anger would just send him out the door faster. She forced a conciliatory smile she hoped didn’t look as stiff and unnatural as it felt. “Can you stop packing for just a moment? Let’s talk about it.”

In this example we’re more privy to her thoughts, the reasons she’s reacting the way she is, and it offers more dimension on her character: We know something of her feelings for him—at least at one time—by how diligently she sought a shirt to match his eyes, emotions you may mine from your own dedication and effort with your rejected manuscript. We understand the hurt it adds to this situation for her that he’s taking that sentimental shirt even as he’s walking out on her—maybe you draw from your hurt that this agent had requested an R&R from you (revise and resubmit) and then rejected your story anyway.

We see not only her gut reactions that show her hurt, but the reasons for them: It adds context and texture to their relationship: her desire to salvage it, the flare of anger that he’s not even paying attention to her, and the effort she’s making to mask that, which paints in more depth on her character and their history: for example perhaps she’s prone to sharp rejoinders she knows annoy him and understands that’s part of why he’s leaving. To bring that to life you might mine your own feelings of anger at the agent’s rejection, and your efforts to suppress it in offering a gracious reply that might leave the door open for future submissions to her.

Dialogue and action are just the tip of the clichéd iceberg in a scene—so much of what’s actually going on and how it’s affecting your characters is beneath the surface in how they are responding internally. Learning to pay attention to your own visceral reactions and thoughts lets you mine those direct experiences to create richly developed characters who leap off the page.


Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, please join me and Tiffany on June 2 for the class Craft Believable and Compelling Characters.

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Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York TimesWashington PostWall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She’s led workshops and seminars for conferences and writers’ groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to writers’ sites and publications. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she’s the author of six novels, including the upcoming The Way We Weren’t (Berkley). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.

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