October 29, 2015
by Christine Kohler
When I switched from writing non-fiction to novels, I hit a snag when trying to create emotions for my characters. I realized that I had walled up many of my own emotions in order to be able to deal with difficult people and situations on an intellectual level instead. So, eight years ago, I started an emotions journal
I set up the emotions journal in a document on my computer. First, I wrote the emotion, such as shock, depression, grief, anger, joy, perplexed and miffed, confused and hurt. Next, I wrote a brief description of the event that caused the emotion. The reason I wrote the event was so that at a later date I’d be able to recreate the feeling. Lastly, I wrote the physical manifestation of the visceral feeling. (In some cases, such as depression, I didn’t experience the emotion myself, but wrote an observation of someone I knew who was depressed.)
A helpful book for writers struggling in this same area is THE EMOTIONS THESAURUS: A WRITERS GUIDE TO CHARACTER EXPRESSION by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
I asked Nancy Butts, author of SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION: A WRITER'S PRIMER FOR CREATIVE REVIVAL
(Deunamos Press, 2013) to share about her experience with an emotions journal.
Nancy Butts said that Dame P.D. James, the doyenne of contemporary British mysteries, once wrote that writers all have a “splinter of ice” in their hearts. What James meant is that even when we are struggling through turmoil in our own lives, there is always a little part of us that stands aside, coolly observing and scribbling mental notes to ourselves. “Oh, this is juicy,” Nancy said. “I can use that in a novel one day!”
Although Nancy began keeping a journal of her emotions twelve years ago for her own benefit, it quickly ceased being “merely” personal. James was right about that splinter of ice. No matter what, Nancy was always thinking, “I’d better write this down, because one day it will help me write more authentic characters.”
Although you can keep a journal in something as simple as a spiral notebook, Nancy chose to keep her emotions journal on her computer using a dedicated journaling app. There are several advantages to this. First, it’s easy to encrypt a computer journal to keep it for your eyes only. Second, an app is set up so you can organize your journal entries by date, but it also allows you the ability to do searches across years for specific words or topics. So if you are writing about a character who is experiencing grief after the death of someone he loves, you can search your journal for keywords like sadness, sorrow, grief, death, mourning, etc., to find what you had written about your own experience in this same situation, and then use it in your book, Nancy said.
I have found that once I started recording emotions and physical reactions that it opened my emotional awareness again, and now when I write I don’t depend on using my journal. Instead, I’m able to think about that emotion and remember how I viscerally felt and how my body physically reacted. So if you operate personally on a more intellectual level, be a keener observer of all the Drama Queens and Kings around you and how they let their emotions all hang out. Write it down, plus your own physical reactions and feelings. You can use it later for character emotions in your dramatic situations (plot).