In my wanders as a writer, beta reader and editor of fiction, I’ve recently come across several drafts of stories with the same major issue: Unrealistic emotional reactions from characters.
This is a common early draft issue, so no need to beat yourself up if your first passes through character reactions don’t sit well with beta readers (I’ve gotten this feedback more than once). But at some point in the revision and fine-tuning process, you’ll need to start thinking about how the characters are reacting to each other, to the setting, and to situations that they find themselves in.
People react to situations in life in a variety of confusing and unexpected and even terrifying ways. But unless you’re building some sort of unrealistic or unusual emotional response pattern into your character, be aware of how your characters are reacting to things. It can be odd, it just has to be believable.
You can linger… I know we’re all told that pacing is important and we need to keep our stories moving, but it’s okay to linger a bit at a point where a character is processing something big. What are they thinking and feeling? How are they reacting emotionally, verbally, physically? Let the reader process it with them.
…just not at the wrong times. Don’t gloss over something big unless you’re in the middle of an action scene. Never interrupt a high action scene with emotions or inner monologue. If your character is hanging off the side of a moving train, they’re not going to stop to think about how they feel about the person who pushed them out of the train – they’re going to be focusing on how not to fall off. Make sure reactions happen at appropriate times.
And the character doesn’t always need to be aware of their reactions. Working in unconscious reactions is a great way to indicate what’s going on inside of a character who isn’t dealing with their feelings. For example, if your character witnesses a huge explosion in which many people are killed, you can signal that they’re struggling by having them act jumpy and skittish around loud noises. Physical reactions to major emotional events can work in place of a major emotional reaction, too – i.e., in my WIP, a character witnesses a murder and responds by becoming nauseated and light-headed. The emotional reaction comes a bit later.
Just be careful you’re not lingering in the wrong place. I read a first draft of a story recently where something about the character’s past is revealed. The reader gets 2-3 sentences about the revelation, followed by a long passage where the character is driving somewhere, thinking about what’s going to happen in the next scene. That “thinking” passage got more words than the revelation did. I wanted to sit with her at the moment of this big reveal, and understand how it must have felt for her, and what went through her head. I didn’t want to sit in the car with her while she drove to her friend’s house, inner monologuing about what she was going to do that night.
And don’t linger too much. The character does need to move on at some point. They can continue to react, but their reaction should evolve and/or manifest itself in other ways. Like my example above – a character witnesses a huge explosion, people die, and then through the book, first you see them get very jumpy and nervous. How can it evolve from there? Well, maybe then you see them start obsessively checking on people they care about and perhaps panicking when they can’t reach them. They’re reacting to that central event, but the reaction is evolving. Maybe their family gets annoyed and starts telling them to chill and stop being overbearing, but because they’re traumatized, your character secretly installs tracking apps on their phones and obsessively checks the app. More evolution of the reaction.
Please, please keep the Bechdel test in mind. I recently read a draft of a novel that is so good and has so much potential, but as the story goes on, the lead woman in the story gets so wrapped up in the lead man of the story that even when big, earth-shattering revelations happen, all she can do is think about the man. She barely reacts to the big revelation, and actually keeps steering the conversation back to the man. Not only did that not ring true to me, but it was frustrating. The man in question does not let his feelings for the woman stop him from acting, or thinking about other things. Yet we get scenes where the woman is literally sitting around just thinking about the man.
This is an issue with how women are presented in literature, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. In general, try to balance stories with a love/romantic angle so that your characters have agency. If you have an entire storyline where a character simply thinks about and reacts to being with another character…you need to rethink your story.
Don’t forget the small moments. Work in reactions to little things, too. This can be a good way to foreshadow – i.e., in my WIP, the POV character realizes her little sister suddenly has a secret cell phone. She asks about it, and her sister lies. The POV character know her sister is lying, but just laughs and dismisses it as completely harmless, just a thing tweens do – start to have secrets from their families.
This small reaction the POV character has nothing whatsoever to do with the scene. It’s pure foreshadowing – it’s me making a promise to my readers that her sister having this phone is somehow important, and the POV character is going to regret not questioning it or telling their parents.
Don’t forget loaded glances, sighs, people suddenly looking away from each other, etc.
Building up to a big reveal in small ways helps engage your readers. Readers want clues, and many (like me) enjoy trying to work out how things are going to unravel.
Recommendation: If you need help writing convincing reactions, consider buying The Emotional Thesaurus (link to bookshop.org – please support independent bookstores.) What this will do is give you a list of ways people tend to physically react to a variety of different emotional states, as well as what other emotions tend to precede or follow those particular emotional states. It helps you show or signal a character’s feelings without explicitly stating them.
Example: I have a character in my WIP who is basically a walking anxiety disorder. She’s a nervous wreck. Absolutely nowhere in the story do I ever tell the reader that. I signal it through her body language and her reactions.
Telling is better than nothing. It’s fine to tell sometimes. Necessary, really. If all you did was show, your story would read rather oddly. It’s fine to tell me that Jane was nervous, or Jack was excited. Telling is also a good way to start. You don’t need to have the finer details of a character’s reaction worked out in the first draft. Adding in those nuances can come later.
Just make sure they get there, eventually.