Flying blind, just for a moment
Forgiveness, chocolate, and why enough is ... satisfactory

From candyfloss to flesh-eating monsters

A friend - let's call her Peta - who writes successfully at the lighter end of women's fiction, including short stories for the womags, has just had one of the more baffling rejections: that her characters lack emotional depth. Her natural writing voice is light and lively, as she is herself, and she doesn't write or read heavily-charged emotional novels. But, as she says

The irony is, I am a very emotional, sensitive person in real life! But yes, I do have a very jokey, lightweight side which is what most people who meet me see, and which comes across mostly in my writing voice. ... When I try to make a story emotional, it does seem to work in terms of sales, but it all feels very clinical. You know, I put in a few meaningful looks, or sighs, or cracked voices...

On the other hand, she doesn't have a problem in writing about things closer to her heart and engaging her more sensitive, emotional side: and she's had success in more literary milieux with this kind of story. But for her womag stories, and the novel her agent is trying to sell, the problem of "lack of emotional depth" does keep on cropping up.

Just in case you're about to stop reading this and go back to the chapter of your own novel where distraught parents are forced to shovel their own babies into the maw of your best flesh-eating monster yet, I should say straight away that this really isn't a problem which afflicts only those who are actively trying to sell into a market that doesn't want too much angst. Your fast-paced thriller may not require Jamesian levels of emotional complexity, but we still need to be convinced by what your characters do feel, if only because that's how you'll get us to believe that they do put the bomb in the baby carriage after their girlfriend has begged them not to. And your high-literary slice-of-life needs to be emotionally convincing too, or we'll start wondering why we bothered.

My first thought, which I suggested to Peta, was that in the cause of making a well-engineered womag story or novel "more emotional" she was dutifully signalling the more emotional moments and manifestations, rather than actually evoking them in all the individual particularity/peculiarity of this individual. "Signalling" is my word for when you're trying to Show/evoke, but it's become very formulaic, so that actually the smile, the eye-meet, the crack in the voice, is operating more like Telling/informing. We get that the character's distressed, or suspicious, or happy, but we don't really feel that distress or joy because it's not evoked for us. It wouldn't be fair to call these gestures clichés - though maybe one day they will be, as the wringing of hands that Sherlock Holmes's clients are prone to has. But they are off-the-peg, standard issue, default.

It's not that it all needs to be full of maximum gloom or hysterical joy, and it's certainly not that you need to spend half a page anatomising what that sorrow or happiness makes him do and feel, down to the last twitch of the second corner of his mouth. But what you give us does need to feel authentic to that character and that moment, and since every character and every moment is individual, you need to re-find the individuality of it, for this story. A good exercise, when you're about to give the reader a reaction shot, as it were, is to stand it on its head. James says he doesn't want to see Leonie any more: you're about to write, "Leonie burst into tears" ... but how about "Leonie started to laugh."? What would that do? Would it be more interesting? As I was exploring in The Opposite is Also True, reversing your defaults for a moment, and thinking about why and how it might happen that way, and how it might work out through the story, makes your imagination jump the tracks.

The other thing (I said to Peta) is that it's worth checking if there's a mis-match between the events that are happening and what the characters feel, and how they therefore act. For example, you might need us to believe in Jane gradually becoming dreadfully upset or thrilled to bits through the scene. But maybe the action or conversation that you've set up to make her feel that way isn't really up to the job: we won't at some unconscious level be convinced by Jane, as a character-in-action, reacting as you need her to. Alternatively, maybe the event is well up to the job in principle, but you haven't evoked the substance - and substantialness - of the event well enough, in its full glory or terribleness. Either way, at some unconscious level we're not really convinced by the relationship of your character's reaction to the situation.

The mismatch can work the other way, of course, and it's especially common in novels: you set up some spectacular event, and Jane is thrilled - or horrified - for a couple of pages. But after that we're back to how she was before: the ripples of that event don't go on spreading through her life and self. If it's bad enough the story becomes an "And Plot" story (as the immortal Turkey City Lexicon puts it), because there just isn't a strong enough through-line of her changing, bit by bit, along the road of the story. Even if those changes are conveyed with a light touch, they still need to be profound. An example would be a Beatrice-and-Benedick type plot, with a merry war between the protagonists. It can all be candyfloss-light, but actually falling into the arms of someone you used to say loudly that you despised is a big deal, and we need to feel that.

Signalling and mismatching are perhaps a particular risk when short stories are what the industry thinks of as plot-driven; when you're working with characters who aren't your fully-imagined main character; when you're working with villians on whom the plot depends; or when you're working to a very tight word-count and by hook or by crook it must all be resolved in 2000 words. It's also a risk with novels of any kind, because the engineering of plot, in order to build your story, is so crucial and so much more complex.

It's a risk in all these situations because when you're more focused on the Action side of your Characters-in-Action, there's always a risk that provided their action is plausible for that kind of character - as long as it's enough for the plot, if you like - the character-in-action seems enough for the story. (Click here for a discussion of plot vs. story.) Whereas in fact, of course, that's only the start. Having decided that for the plot to work X is what needs to happen, you then have to dig down and really make us believe, absolutely, that these particular, peculiar, individual people in these particular circumstances, would inevitably react in a way which makes X happen. Actually, further down the thread Peta articulated this exactly:

As I have less problem plumbing my depths when I write about things close to my heart, then perhaps part of it is that I'm simply not empathizing enough with the characters. Perhaps I have a tendency to look on them as "the characters for a story", instead of really getting involved in the story, and under their skin, and "living" for myself, as the writer, what they are going through. I need to look on the characters more as real people, and less as tools for my plot! I suspect my stories which are plot-driven (as opposed to character-driven) are the ones which are more likely to lack emotional depth.

I couldn't have put it better myself!