The Emotionthought Connection

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So, what's the nature of an emotional thought? What might be going on in your mind with that gun in your ribs? Anger? If you wrote, "He was angry," would that give you a real sense of the character and how he experienced anger? The word anger is a label, not an expression of an emotion. How about: This bastard. This rotten bastard. Just one chance. Give me one chance, and I'll take that gun and pistol—whip him to death. Those are angry thoughts, yet the word angry or anger isn't used once. Also, the character has no reason to tell himself he's angry. I'm angry, wouldn't help. That doesn't mean there might not be a case in which a character might think, This guy is making me angry. But that's a certain kind of self-consciousness that isn't there in most people. And even if the character has this thought, you still have to go on and give us his angry thoughts if we're going to experience the full extent of his anger.

How about fear? How might it express itself? Well, let's try it. See what kind of fearful thoughts you can come up with. Before you read the next paragraph, make a list of all the fearful thoughts that a person might have in such a situation. If the complete thoughts come to you, put them down. If not, make a list of all the things a person could have fears about, then translate each one into an actual thought that could run through someone's mind.

How did it go? It's tricky at first. It takes a while—a little time and practice, but remember: It's already there. It's in you already. It's just a matter of getting to it. The important thing at this point is that you know where to put your efforts so that you're progressing and not spinning your wheels or chasing your tail.

So, what kind of fears might someone have in this situation? Someone with a new family might fear for his loved ones. There are an endless number of ways for that fear to express itself in thought. Here's one way: Oh, no, I'm going to die. Lord no. I'm not ready. I can't go yet. I barely got started. What about my wife and baby? Who'll take care of them? That's seven sentences, but it could pass through someone's mind in an instant. And it's a long way from saying, "He was scared," or "His heart started pounding." One of those statements is general, and one is physical and thus generic by nature. The thought is an actual expression of an individual person's specific fear.

After the fear, something like this might follow: Calm down. Calm down. Get hold of yourself. You've got to get out of this. There has to be a way. Now that's the internal struggle I talked about earlier, and it's expressing another emotion, hope—the hope that you might get out of this alive.

These thoughts are all pretty sensible and appropriate, but emotion, by definition, is not rational. In a desperate situation we're not usually sensible or logical. If he kills me, I'll miss ER tonight might pass through your mind. Your emotions have a mind of their own. In fact, we might say, your mind has a mind (or minds) of its own. So, My cat will starve if he kills me might pass through your mind even though it's not the most sensible thing to be concerned about at the moment.

Or how about: Please, God, get me out of this alive, and I promise I'll never screw my secretary again. I'll be loyal to my wife till the day I die. Now we're into something else—praying, crying out for help (still in the mind). I myself am not particularly religious, but when I'm in a serious jam, I'm not above thinking, I don't know if there's anybody up there, but if there is, I'd really appreciate some help right now. And if you have even less religious belief than that, you might think, If I get out of this, I'm going to give a thousand dollars to help the homeless, hoping to enlist the aid of any power greater than yourself that might happen to be lurking in the area—or you might just make a kind of magical deal with yourself (promise to be a more decent person) in the hope it will affect the outcome of things. When we're desperate, we try anything. And fiction is about people who are desperate, driven, in crisis.

I've put together a list of some kinds of emotional thoughts someone might have in this situation. It's by no means complete. You will become aware of more as you write. The character's thoughts and emotions are what you will spend the most time trying to figure out. I'll give you my list, then a simple technique to help you find the emotion in the character. Here's my list of the kinds of things we do in our heads when we're upset.

Disassociate: Thinking of something totally unrelated in order to protect yourself from pain. If I die, I won't get to eat lobster ever again. We're all capable of this. Disassociation is what severely abused children do when they develop multiple personalities. They become another person in their mind to avoid feeling the torture.

Deny: It's OK. He only wants my money. He doesn't want to hurt me.

Face It: This is the opposite of denial. More like rubbing your nose in it. He only wants your money. Don't be stupid. You saw his face. You can identify him. Now he has to blow your brains out for sure.

Negotiate: Beg, pray to, plead with God or other powers. Make deals with, promises to, yourself.

Displace: Look at what the world's come to since the Republicans (or Democrats) took over.

How about something like this: Ah, now you did it. You knew you shouldn't park here this morning. But you were in such a hurry to get your fancy coffee and too damn lazy to walk an extra block. See what it got you? He should shoot you. You deserve it. So, not only are you in a jam, but you PUNISH yourself for being there. This is the kind of thing I get into myself, since I'm from a strict Protestant background. My parents were not religious and never went to church, but their parents were strict Methodists and Baptists, guilt was the main ingredient in their brand of religion and their upbringing, and it was passed on to me. Everything that happens to you is your fault, they believed. I tell you this so you can see how your own personal traits or quirks can serve you in creating characters. John le Carre, author of many novels (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, for one), said that every character he created was a dimension of himself. That has to be true in a sense for all of us, since all we have is ourselves and what's inside of us.

Think Positively: This will be good for me. It'll make me stronger. This was the philosopher Nietzsche's creed: "That which does not destroy me makes me stronger."

Question: Why is this happening? What does this mean? What am I going to do? How can I get out of this?

What makes a thought emotional? It can be the words themselves, such as, Help! Save me. I'm too young to die. Or a thought can be emotional because of the situation. If I'm sitting in a theater at the end of a movie and I think, It's over, that's not an especially emotional statement. But if when the robber sticks the gun in my ribs, I think, It's over, that's an emotional thought. So, you're not necessarily looking for emotionally charged words; everyday objective words that express emotion in a particular situation can be enough. And often if you just concentrate on what the character would be thinking in such a situation, it will lead you where you need to go.

Planning: A lot of thinking in crisis is about what to do to protect yourself and to escape without injury (psychological injury, most often) and what to do if you fail: What should I do if he raises the gun to my head? or What'll I do if my wife leaves me? Who'll get the house? Lord, I couldn't stand to date again, or What should I do to keep from getting fired? Who'll hire me at my age? The mind is a dramatic place. A lot of action (planning an attack or a defense) takes place before we act outwardly. I've given you a short list of some of the kinds of thoughts we have in emotional situations. Now that you're aware of them, you can work on your own list.

Reaching the inner workings of your character, the secret life, is a lifetime process. It's important to realize that, just as in life, emotion is the hardest and trickiest part. So, if you're having trouble with it—and you will—don't panic. It's the part of your story that tends to come last, the part you will have the least of in early drafts. You will know that your character is having a big emotion at a particular moment, and you will have some sense of what it is, but you will not be able to pin it down. When that happens, when you can't reach it, don't fret. Just be aware of the kind of thing that's needed and move on. The next time around you'll get more of it. Each draft will give you more, and you'll piece it together bit by bit. It's the trickiest and most elusive ingredient of all, but it's the most rewarding. When you deepen the connection to your character, you deepen your connection to yourself.

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