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Guest Blogger Sylvia Dickey Smith
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Reveal Character With Emotional Filters

I know that many of you who read this blog write and I don't often talk about the mechanics of writing. So I'm pleased to have as a guest, today, Sylvia Dickey Smith, with some good advice about the writing process. Sylvia is a story catcher, award-winning author, and fifth-generation Texan who thrives on folklore, customs and culture. She combines this passion with education and experience as a professional counselor and a marriage and family therapist when she writes. She authors the Sidra Smart mystery series, along with her latest work, A War of Her Own, a historical fiction set during WW II. She lives in Georgetown, Texas with her husband, Bill, a full-bird Army Colonel, retired.

Conflict, action, resolution, emotion, and showing (versus telling) are the well-known critical elements to writing fiction,

Emotion can be the trickiest part of life. It can also be the trickiest part of writing fiction.

When a writer does it well the payoff is a reader identifies with the character, becomes the character and feels what the character feels...

For example, read this excerpt from A WAR OF HER OWN.

"Throughout the day, she struggled with whether to confront Hal. If she did, she'd be forced to do something about it. She knew the tall, red-headed, greener pastures kind of guy she married would never be content for long, regardless of where he went or who he married. She knew that, and married him anyway, and she a stiff young woman who tied any passion or emotion into the corner of a handkerchief and beat it into submission with a baseball bat."

If I did it right, you were able to get inside the character's head and feel what she felt. It gave you a glimpse of her feelings and of her insecurities.

  • If the character's emotions are not there, neither is the character.
  • If the character isn't there, neither is the reader not there.
  • And neither is the author in a way that satisfies.

Good fiction requires strong emotion, but how does a writer deal with such a tricky element?

A great technique is the use of an emotional filter. When done correctly, it fully engages the reader inside the character's mind and world.

For example: Rather than writing neutral descriptions, the author colors the description according to the character's state of mind. This helps to increase identification with the character and brings the reader more fully into what John Gardner calls the "fictional dream."

The emotional filter shows how a character feels, thinks, judges, interprets instead of telling the reader

For example:

Say I look out my window and observe: "Two feet of snow covered the ground." What does that say about my state of mind? Nothing.

If I write,

  • "The pine trees bent under a heavy burden of snow." or,
  • "A pristine white blanket snuggled around the house," what happens?

Correct, you start to get a sense of how I'm feeling as I look out the window, even though I didn't write a word about feelings.

That's running the description through an emotional filter.

Our stories have greater impact if we have our character interpret it emotionally. Involve the five senses to give your writing sensory texture, then make sure you convey your character's emotional assessment of what she experiences.

  • The emotional filter is always subjective. It presents your focal character's view of your story world, the situation, the other characters, and the conflicts.
  • When we attach his opinions to his observations and have him make judgments on everyone else's behavior, he not only becomes a stronger character, but our reader will form a stronger emotional bond with him.
  • Every once in a while, we find ourselves writing a scene through the eyes of our villain or some other unsympathetic character.
  • Be sure to make his filter true to him.
  • Present his warped view in the living color of his hang-ups and destructive agenda. If we do this well, the reader will love reading about him because he will be so compellingly unlikeable.

Don't self-edit during the creative process. If we find it difficult to include the subtleties of an emotional filter while writing our first draft, it is best if we write dialogue or action and add opinions and judgments on the second or third time through.

Invest heavily at those places where you have the most control (your own effort and emotion), and reap the benefits when the reader connects emotionally to your characters and loves your story.

Tips for applying an emotional filter:

1. Pay attention to verbs. For example, a verb like "walk" is pretty neutral. But the thesaurus reveals a host of synonyms, which are not only more descriptive, but which carry different emotional weights: plod, march, sidle, amble, glide, saunter, trip, and so on.

2. Think about the difference in the emotional states of a character who thinks, "He walked away from me" versus "He strolled away from me" or "He trudged away from me" or "He skipped away from me."

3. Carefully choose descriptive details. If you are describing a person, for example, it suggests a different state of mind if the character notices full lips or ragged, bleeding fingernails.

4. Go beyond the obvious. A cemetery in the rain is going to suggest a pretty gloomy state of mind. How can we get across a similar state of mind if the funeral is being held on a sunny day? In the latter case, the contrast between the setting and the character's emotional state of mind can strengthen the emotion.

5. During dialogue, keep the reader in touch with the character's emotions by what the character says—but also by what he or she is thinking and doing.

6. After every sentence, ask yourself, "How does my character feel about that?" Make sure the answer is clear all the way through. (A character's emotions are likely to change as the scene progresses and the situation changes.)

Focus on a character's worries, hopes, and fears as a way of getting at the character's emotions.


Show how a character interprets or feels about what's going on around him or her. Saturate every sentence with the character's state of mind.

1. Find a passage in your own writing that feels flat or distant from the POV character. Rewrite the passage through the character's emotional filter. For each sentence, ask yourself, "What does my character feel about this?" (focus on worries, fears, and hopes), then write it in a way that shows those emotions.

2. Write a new scene for your novel, giving attention to the effect of the focal character's emotions on each sentence and the scene as a whole. Apply a strong emotional filter all the way through.

3. Write a dialogue where the characters' emotions aren't being expressed as fully as they could be.

4. Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death.

5. Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.

6. Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing; then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one.

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