Feel this, would you?

I used to stare at this poster trying to gauge what I felt...sometimes it worked, sometimes not

I used to stare at this poster trying to gauge what I felt…sometimes it worked, sometimes not

I have to admit I find it difficult to write characters. No create them, but to actually make them come alive on the page.

To develop a truly realistic character, you need to be able to give a sense of his or her emotional state, and this is where the wheels tend to fall off for me.

For most of my life, you see, I have focused on facts, not feelings. I might even go so far as to say I have completely shut feelings out of my life—or at least as completely as possible without (yet) ending up in prison as a socio- or psychopath. Thus, I have been ill-equipped to deal with the myriad emotions that form the human condition.

If I look or think back to the writing of my youth, I seemed to be able to manage moral outrage and on occasion, actual rage, but any other emotions, no matter to what extreme, came across as flat. And forget any of the subtle shades in between. I did not do subtlety.

About the only character I could develop was the noble stoic who was a tad self-involved. Hmmm. Seems familiar somehow.

Lacking experience with these various emotions, how could I hope to bring them to my characters?

I’ve never believed emotions were something you could study in the traditional sense.

If I want to understand a polar landscape, I can go online or check a variety of books. Determine the behaviour of a jet that loses one engine? I’m sure there’s a Wiki for that. But emotions, by their very nature, preclude such an academic approach.

Ah, but what about other books and movies?

Good in theory, but without a personal foundation, you run the risk of simply reproducing Glenn Close’s interactions with the rabbit or Peter Lorre’s fear of Moroccan Nazis.

No, to be able to realistically reproduce emotions in my characters, I needed to have experienced them to some extent in my life. Call it Method Writing, if you wish.

Luckily, for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with screenwriting, I have been accessing my emotional centre over the last couple of years. Through a challenging process of self-examination and “coaching”, I have started to feel—allowed myself to feel—emotions like sadness, irritation, pleasure, enthusiasm, boredom and the like. And the impact in my writing has been immediate, if continuing to develop.

When my character is angry, I find myself getting angry. When my character feels loss, I can remember when. Ecstasy? I’m all over it (the emotion, not the chemical).

And I’m not the only one who notices this. As friends, colleagues and classmates read my material, I sense they too experience the emotional rainbow. And sometimes they introduce feelings I never envisioned for a scene.

This isn’t a threat to what I wrote. It is a bonus prize I receive for paying attention and sharing, for they have found something in my words that I did not see or did not know I was channeling.

Maybe it’s gold. Maybe it’s lead. But always, it is valuable.

Like my characters, I am still a work in progress, but at least I feel like I’m progressing.

(Image is property of its owner and is used here without permission. I don’t know how I feel about that.)

Anybody home?

The house was dark, which made Helen worry all the more. As long as she could remember, her neighbours kept at least one light on in the house.

“You never know when someone will show up for a visit,” Jackie would explain. “Would hate for them to think they’re not welcome.”

The funny thing was, Helen never saw any visitors at the Jarrols. Maybe that’s why the house always seemed to drip in melancholy.

Helen took the first step on to the porch, making sure not to lean on the railing that more than once abandoned poor Ned to the garden below. Jackie finally planted decorative cabbage just to cushion the blow.

Each step felt spongier than the next as Helen ascended. She wasn’t sure if it was the wood or her trepidation, the silence of the house growing more oppressive the closer she got.

Helen didn’t bother with the doorbell, it never worked, but instead rapped heavily on the door before turning the handle.

“It’s just Helen,” she called into the darkness, the weak light of blinded windows helping her make out the living room. “Jackie? Ned?”

Her words hung in the air, the warmth of her breath buoyant in a house unnaturally cold.

Helen hesitated at the door, afraid to proceed but worried about her neighbours. She really wished Sarah was with her right now, but she wouldn’t be home until tomorrow. Helen was on her own.

“Hello,” Jackie’s voice called from the kitchen.

“Jackie, it’s—“

“We’re not home right now, but if you leave a message, Neddy and I will get right back to you.”

Ned had long ago turned off the phone ringer because it always startled Jackie, who had a weak heart. Helen actually thought it was because Ned hated talking on the phone.

Helen searched the main floor, but the Jarrols were nowhere to be found. Upstairs it was.

As though pulling off a bandage, Helen vaulted the stairs to the second floor, but her hand froze as it came to rest on the bedroom door handle.

Knocking would have been respectful, but Helen just turned the knob and pushed. The door showed no resistance.

Jackie and Ned lay next to each other on the bed, eyes closed. Jackie was under the covers, hair bound in that all-too-familiar brown kerchief, while Ned was atop the covers.

Helen didn’t call out. She didn’t even check them. It was just like Ned to turn the heat off first. He wouldn’t do anything to hurt the potential resale value of the house.