The Rayne Tour
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.

Heightening Character Emotions

One of the hardest challenges we novelists face is portraying characters’ emotions fully and completely. Often we don’t go deep enough. Oh, the novel may be published. But the scenes don’t ring as true to life as they could, don’t grab the reader by the neck and pull him into the story. How can we dig deeper? By exploring all the “colors” of human emotions in our stories.

One common weakness is to portray each emotion as an entity unto itself. In real life, human emotions are much more convoluted. Think of an emotion as a necklace of little beads. Standing back from the necklace, you might see it as basically yellow. But come closer and you’ll distinguish the beads that make the overall appearance. Many beads will be yellow, although in various shades. But others may be green or blue or red, even black. In the same way, any human emotion is made up of many smaller and varied feelings, sometimes even contradictory ones. Too often as writers, we “stand back” from our characters’ emotions and see only its main color.

If you want to portray an emotion to its utmost, focus not on the emotion itself but on the varied “colors” of other emotions that comprise it. For example, love may show itself through anticipation, disappointment, pride in the loved one’s accomplishments, expectation, jealousy, and many more.

You can even portray the emotion’s opposite. Does your protagonist love someone deeply? Then take that character to a moment of hatred for that person. Love can reveal itself through hate, given the right circumstances. But this has to unfold naturally, as one conflict after another arises, and many other feelings will come between the love and hate. In the same way joy can reveal itself through sorrow, courage through fear, trust through doubt.

Sometimes you can take the character’s emotion to its opposite in one key scene. Let’s say your character, a middle-aged woman, is deeply in love with her husband. In the last few months, however, he’s begun to treat her badly, staying out late at night with no explanation, ignoring her needs. She’s afraid he’s having an affair. She’s been patient, saying she loves him and trying meet his needs. Finally, she’s had enough. She must woo her husband back. One night she makes a special dinner for him and squeezes herself into a sexy dress. She has extracted from him the promise that he’ll come home immediately from work. But he fails to arrive on time. She waits. The dinner grows cold. She grows cold in her skimpy dress and adds a sweater. Takes off her high heels. An hour passes. She paces, looking out the window, worrying, wondering. Still he doesn’t show.

In time she cries, then sobs. After a while the tears dry up, and then she grows angry. She vows she won’t love him anymore. He doesn’t deserve her! She stomps around the room, throwing at his imagined form all the awful accusations she’s held back over the last few months. Finally, she sinks into the couch, spent. Only then does she hear his car in the driveway. Her anger rises again. She faces the front door, waiting, standing stiffly, her breath ragged and her make-up smeared. He eases into the room, carrying a dozen red roses. Seeing her expression, he stops in his tracks. Meekly, he holds the roses out to her, saying, “I love you.” Two hours ago she would have accepted them with tears in her eyes. Now she glares at him with pure hatred. With one sweep of her arm, she knocks the roses out of his hands and onto the floor.

Any doubt this woman loves her husband?

Look at all the “colors” of love this scene portrays. Before the scene even begins, it’s based on the woman’s fear of losing her husband. The scene then starts with determination, and goes on to anticipation. Slowly it morphs into discomfort … impatience … mild concern … then worry. The worry cycles her back to fear. The fear is now even deeper than before, because he promised to be home on time, and because she anticipated such a different outcome for the evening. This heightened level of fear leads to deep anger. The anger is sustainable for a while, then peters out, ending in real tiredness—emotional and physical. The woman may feel she’s totally spent—until the husband comes home.

Then all the anger storms back even greater than before. It reaches its peak at the presentation of the roses. As if last-minute flowers could make up for what her husband has put her through. In that moment the anger fractionates into its own multiplicity of colors—a sense of injustice, bitterness, blame, self-denigration at how she’s being treated. Finally, all those emotions swirl together into hatred. The hatred won’t last long. In the next scene she may be crying over her husband all over again. But in that instant the hatred is true to life. It feels right to the reader.

These varying “colors” should be shown through the character’s movement, vocal inflection, perception, and words. Not by simply being named.

It’s easy to look at the above example and say, “Yeah, that all makes sense.” It’s much harder to look at the scenes we’ve written with a critical eye. Does each one effectively portray all the varying “colors” of the overall emotion in the scene? I’m not talking about creating over-the-top drama for drama’s sake. I’m talking about understanding your character—and human nature—deeply enough to know all the “colors” that would naturally arise as a result of the conflicts within the scene. Also look at your novel as a whole. Do your character’s emotions seem too much of one thing? Then find where you can create additional conflict that would naturally lead to more heightened and varied emotion.


Adapted from Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins.