Write What You Feel
Posted by Alan Edwards
(Disclaimer: like all my blog posts, this was written off the top of my head. I have no idea if it makes sense. In all actuality, I should put this disclaimer before everything I write.)
One of the first pieces of advice every aspiring writer gets, shortly after the obligatory “Show, don’t tell”, is this: “Write What You Know”. It’s good advice, in a way. Writing what you know allows you to bring depth and experience to a subject and makes your words ring true to a reader’s ear. If you’re a lawyer, chances are you can make courtroom drama and backstage legal wranglings seem like a peek into a world few get an accurate glimpse into. This can help make your story a lot more gripping and interesting. It also leads to some really shallow stories.
Take John Grisham. I’ve read his stuff before, back in the day when I was in high school. The whole lawyerly angle was cool and neat and nifty, especially since I was fifteen. As the years went by, though, I became acutely aware that, while the legal angles seemed perfectly plausible, the characters didn’t. Everyone looked and acted like cardboard cutouts or archetypical stock characters from every cop show since Dragnet. Identifying with characters is a huge part of investing in a story, and it’s not easy to feel empathy for a mannequin. A lot of authors follow this same path. The ex-cop with the crime stories. The doctor with the medical dramas. Most of these have all the heart and soul of a Wal-Mart holiday display.
But the best ones, the ones that resonate, aren’t just about what the author knows. They are about what the author feels.
Humans are emotional creatures. We like to talk about the differences between ourselves and animals, and mostly we point to tools and cognitive function and thumbs and all sorts of things. To me, though, the main difference between animals and us is the fact that we can articulate our emotions in a way that nothing else can, or else can’t in a way we humans can understand. We can look at a picture and feel joy or sorrow or anger, and we can paint or write or make a simple hand gesture to let everyone around us know exactly how we feel. It’s the one thing we all have in common, this emotional connection that goes a hell of a lot farther than the fact that someone once invented a toaster.
Hey, it’s a rough theory, but I came up with it in the car this morning. Driving to the same place the same way for 6 years really helps the mind wander at 80 miles per hour.
In my mind, the truest way to write and to connect with a reader is through an emotional level. We’ve all felt hurt and loss and love and happiness and the rest of the huge gamut of things we have words for and some that we don’t. If you can make your reader actually happy for a character you’ve written, if you can make somebody sitting propped up in bed way past their bedtime feel their heartbeat accelerate and give a fist pump of exhilaration for your story, then you’ve written something powerful. If you can make a person feel genuine loss for a character, you’ve achieved the greatest thing you as a writer can hope for. That emotional connection is primal, but that’s the power in it.
To me, the only way to make that emotional connection is to really understand how you yourself feel. You need to tap into that emotion and understand it and realize how to articulate the root causes of it. I could tell you in-depth about the inner workings of a grocery store, and maybe you’d be interested to read about and learn something, but you won’t care. I want you to care. I want you to see the characters in the story and identify with them, to understand their emotions and feel them yourself. Trouble is, it’s not something I can force. I need to be able frame the characters and their experiences in such a way that the reader knows them and what makes them tick. It’s not their career or hobbies or activities that define them (which is why I always get annoyed when I meet someone and their first question is, “What do you do?” as if that is the only necessary piece of information required to properly catalog me and mark me as Interesting or Dismissed) – it’s how they interact with the world and how closely they resemble actual living, breathing humans that a reader might know or at least understand.
It is absolutely possible to write a shallow emotional story too, don’t get me wrong. It seems like the easiest way to get rich in the world today is to write something about Angst and Love, especially if you add a vampire or two. I’m not trying to argue that all you need is some character that is emo and whiny. Instead, you need to understand, articulate, and above all feel a wide range of emotions. The more you can work into a story, the more like the Real World it will feel like, even if it takes place in a galaxy a fair bit away or a world overrun by dinosaurs or whatever. Your readers live in the real world, and there needs to be a connection. Your characters are going to be your main chance, and it’s going to be the best chance you have to reach the reader on a level that makes them care.
If you’ve felt loss, and a character in your story is trying to deal with a loss of their own, frame their thoughts and emotions in a way that feels genuine to you. The more you understand your own emotions, the better you can express them, and expressing them is what it’s all about. Don’t limit yourself to the Big Ones, either. Happy, Sad, Angry, and Love are all great, but there is a shitload of nuance and feelings out there that deserve exploring just as much. Take The Invisible Man (Ellison’s, not Wells’). The feelings of isolation and disconnection are hugely powerful in that story, and that’s something potent that people can feel and relate to. In fact, those feelings lead to the Big Ones of Sadness and Anger. I think that’s key. The basic emotions stem from more complex notes. The more believable the emotion causes and reactions of your characters, I believe the better off you are.
A great story needs a lot of things, but its characters that are the most important thing of all. Setting, plot, conflict, whatever – none of that shit matters if your characters are wooden or impossibly perfect or basically inhuman. There’s no connection. Look at your favorite movies or books or TV shows or whatever, and think about why you care. Is it because you like to hear people say “stat” or “objection”, or is it because you identify with its characters and feel what they feel?
I believe there’s a reason why I didn’t write things worth much of a shit until the last few years. Emotions were something I kept bottled up, close to the vest. I couldn’t articulate them. It wasn’t until I learned how to express myself that I could turn around and make my characters more than soulless players in the sandboxes I built. I didn’t know how to care, so I didn’t know how to make a reader care. I believe that I do now. Maybe I’m wrong and my characters are shitty. But the important thing is this: I feel for them, I believe in them, and I sure as hell care for them. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to make you care either.