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 February, 2002

Announcing - Our New Website - www.SlushPile.biz

Controlling Character Emotion

by Sandy Tritt


Sometimes I think I get a bit overzealous. Like in thinking I can cover the subject of Controlling Character Emotion on a brief webpage. Books are devoted to this topic. I have given three-hour workshops on character emotion and still not covered more than the basics. Which is the most I expect to do here, as well as to give a few pointers on where to go for additional help.

Writers must have an innate understanding of the human psyche. We must understand what motivates people, what destroys them, and how any given person will react in any given situation. Unfortunately, not all of us have this natural ability, and we must find ways to help us increase our knowledge. How?

  • Study Human Psychology at your local college.
  • Observe people, especially in emotional situations.
  • Empathize. How would you react?
  • Study books written on character emotions. Two I strongly suggest: Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood (Story Press, Cincinnati, Ohio) and The Writer's Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D. (Writer Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio).
  • Study books written on body language for subtle ways to insinuate emotion through character posture, expression and mannerism.
  • Read emotional scenes in novels. Which ones move you? Why?

In one of my early attempts at writing, I wrote what I thought was an incredibly emotional scene in which a driver hits a pedestrian. It was full of "God, no! It couldn't be! Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God! Dear Lord, don't let her be dead! Oh, God!"

Well -- I was told to look up the word "melodrama" in the dictionary. And now I can see where this over-dramatizing tends to make the reader turn off. The advice I received was: "The more intense the emotion, the more distant the perspective." While I sometimes agree with this, I also believe it is possible to get into a character's head during a moment of intense emotion. The trick is to do it in a unique way (which isn't easy). Although there are many, many masters of emotion out there such as Toni Morrison (Beloved) and Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried), one of my favorite emotional passages is from Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible (pp 366-367, Hardback). Taken from the point of view of the oldest sister immediately after witnessing her youngest sister's death by snake bite, we are given an excellent example of the power of restrained emotion:

There's a strange moment in time, after something horrible happens, when you know it's true but you haven't told anyone yet. Of all things, that is what I remember most. It was so quiet. And I thought: Now we have to go in and tell Mother. That Ruth May is, oh, sweet Jesus. Ruth May is gone. We had to tell our parents, and they were still in bed, asleep.

I didn't cry at first, and then, I don't know why, but I fell apart when I thought of Mother in bed sleeping. Mother's dark hair would be all askew on the pillow and her face sweet and quiet. Her whole body just not knowing yet. Her body that had carried and given birth to Ruth May last of all. Mother asleep in her nightgown, still believing she had four living daughters. Now we were going to put one foot in front of the other, walk to the back door, go in the house, stand beside our parents' bed, wake up Mother, say to her the words, Ruth May, say the word dead. Tell her, Mother wake up!

The whole world would change then, and nothing would ever be all right again. Not for our family. All the other people in the whole wide world might go on about their business, but for us it would never be normal again.

I couldn't move. None of us could. We looked at each other because we knew someone should go but I think we all had the same strange idea that if we stood there without moving forever and ever, we could keep our family the way it was. We would not wake up from this nightmare to find it was someone's real life, and for once that someone wasn't just a poor unlucky nobody in a shack you could forget about. It was our life, the only one we were going to have. The only Ruth May.

Until that moment I'd always believed I could still go home and pretend the Congo never happened. The misery, the hunt, the ants, the embarrassments of all we saw and endured -- those were just stories I would tell someday with a laugh and a toss of my hair, when Africa was faraway and make-believe like the people in history books. The tragedies that happened to Africans were not mine. We were different, not just because we were white and had our vaccinations, but because we were simply a much, much luckier kind of person. I would get back home to Bethlehem, Georgia, and be exactly the same Rachel as before. I'd grow up to be a carefree American wife, with nice things and a sensible way of life and three grown sisters to share my ideals and talk to on the phone from time to time. This is what I believed. I'd never planned on being someone different. Never imagined I would be a girl they'd duck their eyes from and whisper about as tragic, for having suffered such a loss.

I think Leah and Adah also believed these things, in their own different ways, and that is why none of us moved. We thought we could freeze time for just one more minute, and one more after that. That if none of us confessed it, we could hold back the curse that was going to be our history.

What more can I say?

(c) copyright 1999 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved, except for those listed here. May be reproduced for educational purposes (such as for writer's workshops), as long as this copyright notice and the url: http://tritt.wirefire.com are distributed with the pages. For use in conferences or other uses not mentioned here, please contact Sandy Tritt at tritt@wvadventures.net for permission and additional resources at no or limited charge.

   Keep writing!

Sandy Tritt

Inspiration for Writers tritt@wvadventures.net










Critiquing Special
  • First ten pages free, and, for a limited time, all additional pages at 50% off the regular rate of $2.00 per page.  Just mention Publishing New Writers  Newsletter (February, 2002).
  • Critiques by Sandy Tritt
  • Unlike most editors, I consider my role to be a mentor or a coach. Instead of just telling you what is wrong, I explain how to correct the problem, and I work with you to teach you how to write effective prose. More than 50% of my business is repeat business, and I relish establishing long-term relationships with other writers.
  • Treat you with respect and compassion. All criticism will be of the "constructive" sort. My purpose is to improve your writing, not to destroy your confidence.
  • Mark your manuscript, correcting grammatical and spelling errors and suggesting alternative wording where appropriate, line-by-line.
  • Highlight areas that are especially well-written, so you will know where your strengths are.
  • Where appropriate, offer suggestions for plot development, character development or other areas that could be strengthened.
  • Return a two-to-four page written analysis of your work. This will include evaluation of: plot, setting, characterization, dialogue, special effects (flash forwards, flashbacks, etc.), voice, point of view and any other areas particular to your work.
  • If appropriate, recommend reading or resources to strengthen your areas of weakness.
  • Answer any questions you may have via email.
  • Provide my telephone number for a personal follow-up, if you desire.

For Sandy's success stories, see http://tritt.wirefire.com/Manuscript_Critique.html

Write Sandy at tritt@wvadventures.net

(See Sandy's article in the left column.)

Writerly Websites...


This is Dianne Ochiltree's site for children, parents, teachers and writers for young readers. Dianne is an author of books for young readers (birth to teenage)

and she is also a children's book reviewer. She's been writing professionally for over 25 years---about 18 years in public relations/advertising/marketing and the last 7 years as a children's writer. Dianne has two books published to date, with Scholastic and with Simon & Schuster.

http://tritt.wirefire.com The Inspiration for Writers website offers help and encouragement to writers of all levels. Tips and Techniques give practical advice about frequent writing blunders. The Writer's Prayer, inspirational quotes, and essays about the writing life add insight and inspiration. The Fiction Showcase offers short stories for the reader's enjoyment. And, for those serious about improving their writing skills, manuscript critiques and coaching services are available. Visit http://tritt.wirefire.com today!


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Psst, Surfer

by Jack R. Noel

I’m sure many a would-be writer surfs by Author-Me.com and other writers’ websites out of both hope and curiosity. People new to writing and new to the still growing idea of writing for the Web can use some encouragement. Here are a few advantages to online publishing you might think about.

1. For anyone who’s tried writing with an electric typewriter, had to prepare, package and ship their manuscripts to a faraway publisher who may not respond to a submission for months; having a computer with powerful software and access to the Internet is a godsend, multiplying speed and abilities many times over.

2. Next, you’ve noticed how many sites feature writing that is “volunteer.” This is great, offering unprecedented access to publishing. One can take time to develop and polish while not having anxieties about the acceptability of their writing. Early writers frequently find it painful to receive feedback or rejection, which is not always delivered with sensitivity. When they’re ready, they can go on to submit their work commercially, often with the same ease they had as volunteers.

3. The nitty-gritty of writing is finding an agent or editor who will accept your work and offer guidance if you have material worth publishing. Sites like Author-Me.com have all the steps set up for you, from volunteered work with feedback from readers, a report on “hits” for your work, and most recently, there’s http://www.Slushpile.biz, where you can post work for literary agents and editors to look over.

4. Finally, the constant flow of information allows us to skirt obstacles. An example would be the recent report at http://www.writersdigest.com , which directed seekers of copyright protection to http://www.loc.gov/copyright/ where they are given alternatives to mailing in applications.

Ever Feel like This?


I have saved all of rejections I have received. I enjoy writing because of that one moment of praise that I have received from you. Writing can be lonely some times and there is a need for feedback. It's an accepted loneliness. . There is something about putting words together that make sentences that depict a story like painting on an easel and watching it unfold. There are times when I read something I wrote and I'm filled with joy. Thanks for the shot in the arm.

A note from an author who published on AuthorMe.com. It could have been from any of us, all of us. It's why we're here. (Published with permission.)

Publishing New Writers,

February, 2002 (no.302)

Editor Bruce L. Cook, P.O. Box 451, Dundee, IL 60118.  Fax (847) 428-8974.

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