How many emotions do you feel in one day? Lots, if you think about it. They flit through us at every moment, completely out of our control. Curiously, this vital part of reality is often absent from fiction novels. Why?
I just finished reading a fairly recent bestseller, in which the emotional theme went like this: Things are bad and then they get worse and worse and worse (repeating forever). There was a great deal of description put into this living hell of a setting, too. The book went into exhaustive detail to build on emotional themes such as despair, hopelessness, desperation, etc.
The book went straight to my donate pile.
Emotional depth is easy
That book was an exceptionally unengaging read, and I can only imagine it was horrible to write. As an author, you immerse yourself completely in your story, so you owe it to yourself first and foremost to write characters capable of a wide range of emotions. After all, who wants to spend hundreds of hours dwelling only in despondency?
Unless, of course, it’s all the author knows. We all put something of ourselves into our creations. One of the joys of writing, for me, is to discover and express different parts of myself via writing different characters and scenarios. Writing about what we know is easy, especially if we’ve been dwelling in a particular emotional space for quite some time.
That said, emotionally deep characters are common and popular. Plenty of people live an emotionally narrow life, and we relate to things as we have lived. My argument is: Why not both? Why not go deep and explore a range of emotions?
Emotional breadth is amazing
One of the more interesting experiences in life is to witness and experience conflicting emotions: Joy in the middle of sadness, courage in the face of fear, jealousy in the throes of love, and so on. These conflicts are natural, powerful and spontaneous. They are the stuff life is made of, and these situations make for great characters because they are something we can all relate to.
Conflicting emotions only come about when we pursue something that really matters to us. If you’re feeling sad one moment and then you feel alright, that’s just normal emotions going through you, all in their own good time. However, something vitally important like an unrequited love, a strained loyalty or facing mortal peril will provoke a serious conflict of feelings.
This is why, when a character is emotionally shallow, they feel like a cardboard cutout to me. Deep, narrow characters are a bizarre parody of humanity and represent a stunted understanding.
Choose your audience
You choose your audience as soon as you decide what to write. I always knew that I wanted to focus on character development and dialogue, as I’m more about emotional breadth than depth. Sure, I could go into exhaustive depth on emotional themes but I figure, ‘why would I bother?’ Plenty of other authors already focus on limited emotion as though it’s all they know.
I want to give the public something rare, if not new.
Stories are partly new, partly borrowed. The audience never seems to mind.
When I read the blurb on that bestseller book, my first thought was, “Wow, I read stuff like this in primary school.” The idea of a bleak post-apocalyptic setting is so old and recycled that I was reading about it almost thirty years ago… The emotional theme of the story was exactly the same, too: A monotony of despair with moments of panic. I was right: I had read the same thing before!
Although ideas are rarely new, the storytelling itself can be evergreen. This is my goal. When I make a name for myself, I want it to be for my engaging, well-rounded characters that people find strangely relateable, even if they can’t put their finger on why. I look forward to having conversations with people who find my storytelling appealing and struggle to relate it to anyone else’s style. If I can achieve this, I’ll be quite pleased with myself.
Emotional depth has mass appeal, but emotional breadth is what you’ll be remembered for.