How are your characters feeling?

To me, how your characters are feeling – the emotional core of their journey – is just as important as structure, if not more. It’s the heart and soul of any script or story, the main driver for our characters, and what motivates them into action. In broad strokes: characters feel things, and in order to change the things they feel strongly about (or the situation that causes their strong feelings), they take actions, which have consequences, which result in personal growth, a change in outcome or a change in how they feel. Just like us, really.

In classic Westerns, our hero is motivated to go on a quest to seek bloody revenge as a result of some sort of devastating personal loss – the brutal death of their wife/brother/sister/father/mother etc. Their emotional core is anger/betrayal/grief. And it drives them ever onwards into darker and bloodier confrontations. In Aliens, Ripley feels a strong maternal bond for Newt, so she takes on the aliens, risking her life to save her (and her crew). In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is bored with rural farming, and then despondent after the death of his Aunt and Uncle, so he agrees to go on a quest with Obi-Wan Kenobi.

What I’m really getting at here, is what actually motivates the character to act in the first place? What feelings are they having that motivates them to take x, y or z action and what are the consequences? How do they feel about the consequences? For me, what makes a compelling story is understanding how a character feels in each scene. Even if I don’t agree with their behavior or particularly like the character, being able to understand where they’re coming from is important if I’m to be able to engage with their story at all.

Adding another level, sometimes what makes a scene even more compelling is watching a character struggling to take action in spite of how they feel (something we all have to do on a daily basis). One of my favorite examples of this, is Love Actually. Emma Thompson’s character sneakily opens a jewelry box in her husband’s coat to find a gold necklace. She’s excited and touched – convinced he’s finally giving her the romantic Christmas present she’s always hoped for. But later, under the Christmas tree, he hands her a similar shaped box, which she excitedly opens to reveal… a Joni Mitchell CD. And her face falls. In the bedroom, behind closed doors, she fights back tears, before she pulls herself together and re-joins her family in the living room, hiding her breaking heart from her children with big hugs and smiles.

Her obvious struggle to appear happy and grateful, against her realization that her husband is likely having an affair and the gold necklace is intended for someone else, is highly emotional and compelling. The fact she’s fighting down her true feelings of sadness, raises the stakes and makes the scenes even more dramatic. These scenes also remind me that moments don’t have to be BIG and LOUD to be impactful, emotional and dramatic. Sometimes the most drama comes from seeing a character fight their true feelings and hide it from the people around them. Watching someone on screen trying not to cry, can be much more compelling than watching someone just all-out sobbing – their own internal struggle adding another layer of tension.

(Love Actually is actually one of my favorite films for this reason – I understand and know how each character is feeling in every scene.)

Personally, when I first start breaking a story, I start with the emotional core or journey of the main character. Where are they at the start? What do they want? How do they get it? And what do they get at the end? In really broad strokes, I assign it to an act and sort of overlay a structure. E.g: They feel out of place => they want to fit in => they do a, b or c => d, e and f, h, i and j gets thrown in, but eventually they find w, x, y and feel z.

When I get to the scene writing/breaking stage, I’m always asking myself: How does the character feel about what’s going on in this scene? What are they going to do about it? I know we like to believe us humans are practical and logical creatures, but the truth is we are often driven by our emotions (whether we realize it or not). For my characters to be more realistic and relatable, they have to be human too. So that means they need to have emotions and be motivated by them as much as we are.

It’s very easy when writing to get into the “and then she does this” and “then this happens” and to have a story driven by plot. Plot is essential, don’t get me wrong, but if the plot isn’t driven by the character’s motivations and their underlying emotions, then it can feel a bit contrived. You know, kind of cookie-cutter-paint-by-numbers, formulaic. It won’t be as engaging. Sometimes when I’m stuck, if I focus on what the character’s feeling in a particular scene, this will often lead to what they would do, which will help unlock a new and more natural way to drive the plot forward – other than what I might have already outlined.

So, how do you and your characters feel about that?