The original title for this week’s topic was ‘How do your characters handle emotional stress?’ I agree that non-verbal body language can help us to show the reader some of the physical reactions of our characters when they are under stress, but I think it goes much deeper than that.
We want our readers to empathise with the characters and to feel things as they feel them. Therefore just showing them slumping forward in despair or their voice breaking with tears isn’t enough.
People handle emotional stress in so many different ways. Someone who has been betrayed or let down or had their heart broken may rant and rave or throw things or cry on the shoulder of their best friend or sit brooding, or, indeed, behave perfectly normally, keeping their heartbreak hidden inside them.
The reader has to see behind whatever outward reactions the character is showing to the world. They have to feel whatever the character is feeling deep inside and not just what is on the outside. Do they feel sick, numb, angry, devastated, dejected, betrayed, humiliated? Do they blame themselves, the other person, someone else or the world in general? And how are they reacting, not on the surface, but deep within themselves – with resignation, depression, pessimism or determination?
I believe the only way we can show these things is to feel the emotions ourselves and not simply write about them. If we identify with our characters, we live their story with them, we feel everything as acutely as they do, and this makes it possible for the reader to identify with them too and feel, rather than just see, what they are going through.