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Writer’s Personality and Capturing Emotion in Fiction

October 6, 2013

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Are you the thinking, judging introverted type? Are you a feeling, intuitive person? If you’ve ever taken the Meyers-Briggs personality test, you know what I’m referring to. It’s a test that tries to pin down our personality based on our responses to a battery of questions about our tastes, decisions, and habits.

It has long been my opinion that personality tests are stupid for most people and just plain crazy for writers. Writers should understand that personality comes in many shapes and sizes, and most “types” are hard to pin down–they take pages and pages to illuminate, not a few sentences. Or worse, a single word.

Using one word, like say, AFRAID, to describe a human being’s complex emotional response to some realistic set of turbulent circumstances is not just bad writing, but an offense to the depth of human nature. To formulate science around such endeavors to simplify emotion and personality is just plain crazy.

Well, there’s a new test in crazy town. It purports to measure the taker’s ability to read human emotions based entirely on one’s perception of photographed eyes. There are words to choose from too, though, and this is where things get a little less scientific. You have to know the difference between aghast and bashful, not just as looks on a person’s face, but as words. This seems simple enough. As writers, however, we work in the nuance of such expressions, often attaching them to fictive characters in constructed situations percolating with emotion.

If you tend to write characters who may be feeling BOTH aghast and bashful, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Life is complicated. Our emotions are an adaptation to life. The porcupine has quills. Sharks have teeth that never stop their razor sharpening growth. We have tears and blushes, eyebrows that go up and furrow, upticking and cracking voices, tremors, smiles, laughter, and goose pimples. Seems like poor comparisons beside shark teeth, but these are our weapons against entropy just the same. And every writer should be an expert at them.

Of course, I do not believe this test actually measures anything other than what it shows–the emotional implications of black and white photographs of eyes. Next time I’m at a party attended by hysterical photography, I’ll have an advantage in understanding the inner life of the guests if I do well on this test. Unfortunately, life has real people in it not just photos of them. And understanding the complicated OFTEN CONTRADICTORY EMOTIONS of real people will take a writer’s healthy appreciation for causes and effects.

The next time you find yourself stuck on an emotional scene in your own writing think of it this way: it is because human emotion can be so perplexing that good writers focus on capturing the specific conditions or events causing the emotion. A focus on specific effects is good too, but that can be an area of problematic redundancy for novitiate writers.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say you specify an event that makes your character shocked. You rightly avoid telling your reader that your main character is shocked or that the event, whatever it is–an intruder in the house, a rock through a window–was shocking. The event should be sufficiently shocking in itself, so that there’d be no need to say that it is. Likewise, if an event is inherently shocking, it would only be redundant to say that your character was shocked. Instead, describe some action peculiar to this character that conveys to the reader the whole gamut of emotions that character may be feeling.

Emotions are either difficult to articulate or they produce bad writing when articulated too easily. Opt instead for articulating actions, circumstances, causes, effects. As William Carlos Williams would say: “No ideas but in things.”

But beware of over-describing effects. Unlike the takers of the test with the photographed eyes, your readers will live in a house made of their own mental pictures while reading your fiction. Those pictures are based on your words, of course, and you will curate that mental gallery quite closely. And yet the infinite details that your readers will conjure up around the mental pictures suggested by your words are all their own.

Thus, you are interfering with the reader’s picture making mechanisms (to borrow from Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case”) when you offer unnecessary and redundant and superfluous details…(get it? haha). So don’t specifically describe a shocking scene and then describe your hero’s widened eyes. We’ve already mentally filled in that part of the portrait.

Sometimes being a good writer means being a good collaborator. While you are solely writing, you are co-painting your readers’ emotional landscapes. And the best kind of personality for that activity is the Writerly, Writing, Writer’s type.

From → writing tips

  1. Few assessments, on their own, are particularly telling. Yet some take the results as absolute. In the aggregate, trends can be more telling and validating. I like your WWW “type.” 🙂

  2. Never forget the reader. And that – at least for me – is the most difficult part of writing.

    • That says a lot coming from such an accomplished writer, Sarah, as yourself. There are no shortcuts. This is a tricky business and writing is tough to do well. Just plain tough.

  3. Michael Andreoni permalink

    Well done, and you’ve even read “Paul’s Case”? That’s awesome!

  4. Redundancy…what an interesting concept. Something that is all too easy to fall into. I suppose we don’t give our reader’s enough credit!

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