As fiction writers, our goal is to make our readers feel our character’s emotions and assure our readers that those emotions are real. Yet, despite our best efforts, we all too often undermine our stories’ emotional reality by using cliches, not believing our own experiences, and using nebulous, unfocused ideas to express our character’s sentiments.
A cliche is an overused and dull expression. For instance, “having sweaty palms” and “green with envy” are emotional cliches. We dirty our fiction with cliches when we grow weary or tired with our writing or simply use the first dynamic description that pops into our mind.
To bypass writing emotional cliches, please don’t use that first phrase you think of. Please don’t use the second or third, either. When you feel yourself falling for an emotional cliche, stop and think about it. Strive for originality. For instance, instead of writing, “his face was as red as a tomato,” write, “his face looked like a lump of boiled meat.”
We want to draft convincingly, but we often lack trust in our abilities and our own experiences. We’ve all encountered the same feelings as everyone else, so why can’t we entrust ourselves to write about them correctly? Our character faces a life-and-death decision. Yet, we’ve never encountered that kind of decision before, so we don’t trust how we would feel in that same kind of situation.
But we have all faced hard decisions in our lives, and we know the uncertainty and fear that follows those choices. Explore those tremors, remember how they smelled, tasted, and felt. How did your body and mind react? Pen those down and then use them in your story.
Sometimes though, it isn’t a mere matter of imbibing our own experiences but it is also about focusing on how our character should act at a particular point in our account. We’re uncertain of how they should respond to a particular situation. So instead of using precise, concrete details, we bombard our reader with a laundry list of emotional cliches and jargon, hoping that they’ll be able to see through the fog and understand what we’re trying to communicate.
In these cases, be precise. Use accurate details. Dig into your character’s mind and use the color of her past experiences to describe how she feels in that moment correctly.
As an author, we need to keep demonstrating to our readers to feel what our characters feel and to trust that those emotions take work. Our fiction falls flat too often because we write with emotional nonsense; we fail to trust our own experiences and use vague descriptions when writing about our character’s emotions. When you find yourself slipping into any of these traps, dig for innovation, learn to trust your own senses, and use precise, concrete details to write believable and compelling character emotions.