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By Madeline Ash

When editing and judging contest entries I am constantly hooked by the story premise: it might be unexpectedly fresh and I’m left with no idea where the story is going (but I’m desperate to find out) or it might draw off a classic trope that’s been custom-fit to the main characters and it’s just *chef’s kiss*.

But I also find that the premise and unfolding plot can end up overshadowing the characters’ internal landscapes. Instead of the story revealing two (or more) complex, self-aware and emotionally driven main characters who collide and fall into each other’s orbit despite (insert awesome conflict here), the story can become clogged with plot and external or contrived conflict. It seems that perhaps the author has struggled to leave the characters breathing room inside the set-up for them to fully develop.

To me, a sure sign of a fully developed character is emotion. The real, the unexpected, the contradictory. They react in believable ways, making our breaths catch as readers, our hearts ache, no matter how farfetched the plotline.

They’re real because they make us feel.

A man and a woman dancing on a pathway in the forest. Golden sunlight is dappled through the trees around them.
Photo by Scott Broome on Unsplash IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A man and a woman dancing on a pathway in the forest. Golden sunlight is dappled through the trees around them.

We’ve all read books where we’ve been utterly blindsided by the way a scene has unfolded—and not due to a plot twist, but by the way the characters reacted to the situation. It’s like the moment in a movie where someone is driving flat-out, urgently trying to outrun the conflict on their tail, and abruptly hook the car down an unmarked dusty road that you could never have known was there, but of course it is, oh my God, drive faster.

Our characters have entered a situation with the established conflict driving them alongside the plot, until one (or both) of them reacts in a completely unexpected way that reveals something about them we either didn’t know was there or that the author deliberately made us underestimate or overlook.

And it is GLORIOUS.

Why? Because they’re reacting out of emotion—not to serve the plot. It propels the story forward in the juiciest, richest and the most realistic of ways. Realistic because it’s sprung from the character’s core, and nothing feels more authentic and resonant on the page than that.

I’m not saying your characters need to be startling readers with their feelings in every chapter. But weaving real, unexpected and contradictory character emotions (and reactions) into your story is a sure-fire way to create fully developed characters.

So how can we do this?

Make dialogue matter

Dialogue is my all-time favourite method of building emotion. This is where characters can connect, clash, or become irresistibly vulnerable. In my opinion, the most engaging, stay-up-until-three-a.m.-reading kind of stories are the ones where the dialogue is almost exclusively about things that matter.

Not about the commute to work, or the lives of sub-characters, or things the readers already know. Focus on your leads talking about things that matter to them emotionally—you’ll be surprised at how deep you can go with this if you sit back and unpeel the conflict you’ve established. Push them to talk about topics that make them vulnerable—that force them into raw honesty. Pick at emotional scabs; put them in corners that expose them. Ask questions that strip away their good manners or secrecy or opinion that it’s none of the other character’s business. Use dialogue to challenge your characters, shock them, delight them.

In line with this, try not to rehash the same conversation in different ways. This can make scenes feel stale as the story is lacking narrative traction and isn’t offering any new feelings for readers. There’s no push-pull in inertia, so allow your characters to slog through one conflict but then move into the next.

As a bonus to deepening character, emotion keeps dialogue juicy for readers!

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash. IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Two woman have their backs to the camera. They wear floral crowns and denim jackets and appear to be talking to each other.
Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash. IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Two woman have their backs to the camera. They wear floral crowns and denim jackets and appear to be talking to each other.

Give your characters time to react

This can be hard. You’ve got a plotline and a word limit and no time to waste. In some genres, rapid pacing is exactly what the story needs. But in romance, rushing the action can short-change character development. It can leave readers wondering how characters reached a particular internal stance—because they sure weren’t there when it happened. In scenes with a big or even moderate emotional reveals, try not to rush the scene to its close. Allow your character/s time to process what has been said or happened and feel it.

You can do this either by giving them time within the scene to feel and react (openly to the romantic interest or internally), which can take the scene in new and surprising directions, or you can write a sequel to the scene while giving the character a page or so to process their emotions, reach a turning point, and allow readers to proceed with them to the next stage of the story.

Use emotion as conflict

Curl up and get comfortable in the fact that humans are messy. Our emotions aren’t within our control and that can drive us to despair. Use the way a character reacts emotionally to a situation as its own conflict. I can’t feel this way—it wouldn’t be fair to the other person/I have no right to feel like this/I need to focus—and yet I do.

The character can hide the way they feel, bury it, or let it blow. If they suppress it, don’t forget it’s there, maybe morphing into a different emotion, growing, or gnawing away at them. This kind of internal conflict can be brilliant as a secondary source of tension, humming away in the background of that character’s main conflict. It can also be a really useful scene-length conflict, keeping the tension up for a dozen pages, and then addressing it so it can give way to the next.

(An example: in a secret baby trope, the heroine may unexpectedly feel jealous that the hero has come into her child’s life, and she fears his presence will replace her role in some areas of her child’s life and heart. This eats her up for a chapter, because she wants the hero to be in their child’s life: he deserves to be an active father and her child deserves to know him. And yet—and yet—she’s jealous and scared. This resolves by her being honest with the hero and them resolving to check in with each other to ensure he doesn’t encroach into her spaces as a mother. The story moves on.)

Understand what both characters are feeling in every scene (and why)

This one is HUGE. Most of us will have read scenes where the non-POV character confuses us with their behaviour. Perhaps they get moody out of nowhere or abruptly kiss the POV character. It can take us by surprise—but not in the right way. More in the why on earth did they do that kind of way. And this takes a huge toll on character development because we suddenly feel disconnected, cut loose from a character we thought we knew only to discover we didn’t know them at all.

As a romance writer, your role is to keep track of the emotional journey of all characters, but especially your romantic partners. Ensure that the non-POV character is reacting and expressing themselves consistently and believably with what you know they are feeling and thinking. Ask yourself: what is the other character feeling in every moment? How do they feel about each line of the POV character’s dialogue? What drives them to say what they say, to act and withhold? Can you convey this in the non-POV character’s action, dialogue delivery, and word choice?

When you understand how both characters are feeling in an interaction, it inevitably creates a compelling scene that leaves readers hanging on every word. It allows readers to not only ache or laugh or cry with the POV character, but with the non-POV character too. Double the feels!

It can be challenging to convey to readers how a non-POV character is feeling, especially if you want the POV character to believe they are feeling something different! (There are tricks, such as allowing them to misunderstand the other’s quick breathing or the pained scrunching around their eyes.) But letting the reader in on the secret of how the other character is feeling amplifies the reading experience, as it makes readers feel connected to both characters at the same time.

These are just four of many ways to use emotion to help your characters become more well-rounded and real on the page. If there are any other techniques you’ve read or use in your writing, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to post in the comments below.

Madeline x


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