A delicate truth

Helga’s Post #45 — In a previous post, Karalee raised the question of whether a writer can convincingly write about fear if he/she has never experienced it. Or sorrow, hatred or any of our emotions.

At first I thought the answer should be obvious, because we are all capable of a full range of emotions. Not only capable, but experiencing all these emotions along life’s path.

But the more I thought about it, the less obvious it became. It’s an interesting debate, and a philosophical one as well.

Let’s start with the emotion of fear. We all know what it feels like. It’s part of our DNA, a survival mechanism. Fear is an emotional response to actual danger (as opposed to anxiety – the response to imagined threat) Without the capacity to feel fear we would be dead. Fear warns us of danger and if the brain gives the signal it produces adrenalin to give us sometimes super-human strength and capacity for fight or flight.  It’s probably the one emotion (other than love) that most authors can convincingly put down on paper.

But it’s not that simple. There are many nuances of fear, such as fright, dread, horror, panic, anxiety, acute stress reaction and anger.

This is where talent shows through, where wheat separates from chaff, even if a writer has not experienced the full range. Take Stephen King’s ‘Misery’ as an example. Did he ever feel naked fear in real life the way he made his character Paul Sheldon feel when he was held captive for weeks by Annie Wilkes who eventually chopped off his foot? Not likely. It’s King’s vivid imagination and impeccable research that make him such a great writer. He can put himself in his characters’ mind as if he’s living their life. Without having lived through all these challenging emotions himself.

Kathy Bates in 'Misery'

Kathy Bates in ‘Misery’

Love is another feeling that most people have experienced in one form or another. Not only romantic love. Mother’s love, love for your kids, love for a dog or cat, love for one’s country or a deity. We know what it feels like, so we are able to convey it in our stories. But it won’t guarantee we can do it well. Not by itself. That’s where writing skills and passion are needed.

There are many more emotions, a veritable alphabet soup from A to Z, from affection to apathy to worry and zeal. Some recurring themes in novels, are desire, guilt, grief, joy, regret, and hatred.

Back to the question of whether we have to experience something in order to convincingly write about. I don’t believe so. In certain situations, it definitely helps. Like in describing settings. I have never written about a location that I have never been to, because I want to convey how I experienced the place with all my senses. Not a postcard-like description, but the whole package. The sound of traffic or human voices, the smell of food, people, nature, the feel of humidity, the colour of the sky. All of it.

But for other scenes, research alone can take me a long way. And that includes those emotions my characters feel that I have not experienced myself. I cannot think of a time in my life when I truly felt hatred. Resentment, sure. Loathing, yes. Outrage too. But pure hatred? I am sure most people haven’t in its most passionate form. And yet, hatred is the emotion that often provides the motive as well as the motivation for our protagonists and antagonists. It most often drives the plot and keeps the fire of the story burning. That’s where we writers have to reach deep, use our imagination and passion to make it sound real. To nail the story and have readers remember it long after they finished reading the book.

All to say, good writers can invent a great deal. As Silk said in her last post, ‘Trust your instincts.’ We don’t need to have experienced the full range of emotions we are writing about. I don’t have to suck a lemon to know it tastes sour.

Other emotions however are more difficult to simply invent. Like the feeling of outrage. It’s difficult to write passionately about it if the writer doesn’t know what it feels like, if he/she cares little or none for the issue. Here is an example of a quiet but burning outrage that clearly reflects the writer’s own values:

“Our power knows no limits, yet we cannot find food for a starving child, or a home for a refugee. Our knowledge is without measure and we build the weapons that will destroy us. We live on the edge of ourselves, terrified of the darkness within. We have harmed, corrupted and ruined, we have made mistakes and deceived.”

That is passion. That is outrage. It’s the power of the written word.

Can you guess the writer?

4 thoughts on “A delicate truth

  1. A great discussion of emotions, Helga. These need to be our stock in trade, and too often I think writers don’t let the passion come through (Don Maass writes a lot about this). You’re right on here! The mystery quote … it could have come from so many revered leaders. From Mandela to Clinton. But I should have known whose words you would choose, as I discovered when I googled it. Fantastic stuff!

  2. Thanks, Silk! Yes, it could have been a quote from Mandela or Clinton, or a number of other leaders. Same passion, but perhaps with a little less eloquence.

  3. As someone who’s not terribly open about her emotions, I often portray my characters the same way, especially in early drafts. Letting them express their feelings, especially ones I don’t share, is really difficult. But I have to remind myself that readers can’t bond with a character who holds too much back.

    I thought the quote could have been from one of the Kennedys or Mother Theresa. Interesting to see who really said it!

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