Thursday, November 14

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion
One of my favorite books on writing is Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer because there he discusses, in depth, how to construct characters that evoke emotion in readers. 

The following information is contained in chapter three of Mr. Swain's book, these are my notes. I'm sharing them with you because no one ever laid out the whys and wherefores of how to elicit emotion in readers the way Mr. Swain does here.

As I've said before and I'll no doubt say again, everyone's different. If what Mr. Swain says works for you, if it helps you, then great! Use it. If not, ignore it. Different strokes.

How To Create Characters That Evoke Emotion

Dwight V. Swain writes,

"Feeling is a thing you build through manipulation of motivation and reaction."

Specifically, feeling is built through the manipulation of motivation-reaction units.

Motivation And Reaction Units

First off, what's a motivation and reaction unit? Before I--or, rather, Dwight V. Swain--lay it all out, let's look at an example:
"Now, with a roar, the red Jag picked up speed, careening recklessly as it hurtled down the drive and out into the highway. Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."
Not bad. There's definitely emotion there. I'd be interested in reading on. Let's sweep the curtain aside and look at how Mr. Swain did this.

First, though, some terminology.

The anatomy of a motivation-reaction unit:

1. Motivating stimulus
2. Character reaction
2.a: Feeling
2.b: Action
2.c: Speech

How to construct a motivation-reaction unit:

At it's simplest, a motivation-reaction unit consists of just two sentences. The first sentence contains the motivating stimulus and the second sentence contains your character's reaction.

So, for instance, in the above example:

Motivating stimulus:
"Now, with a roar, the red Jag picked up speed, careening recklessly as it hurtled down the drive and out into the highway."

Character reaction:
"Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."

How to write a motivation-reaction unit:

a. "Write a sentence without your character."
b. "Follow it with a sentence about your character."

Let's unpack that.

a. Write a sentence that doesn't mention your character.

The motivating sentence has nothing to do with how the character sees the world, it describes how the world is. Dwight V. Swain notes that this is important because, if you mention the character in the motivating sentence, that mention could be enough to turn what is supposed to be a motivation into a reaction.

b. Write a sentence about the character's reactions.

While the motivation sentence was about the world, the reaction sentence is about the character. "It describes how he behaves in consequence of the action that takes place" in the first sentence.

For instance, in DS's example:

Second sentence:
"Stiff-lipped, Brad turned from the window and ground out his cigarette."

Stiff-lipped --> indicates Brad's state of mind.
Grinds out his cigarette --> indicates Brad's state of mind.

Note: You don't have to limit yourself to one sentence. "Often two, or three, or even more sentences may be needed in order to present a given motivation or reaction with proper impact."

That said, if you're a beginning writer, Mr. Swain advises you to keep to one sentence each for motivation and reaction, at least until you feel you've gotten the hang of it.

Now let's look at the motivating stimulus and character response in more detail.

The motivating stimulus & character response

What is the motivating stimulus? It's "anything outside your character to which he reacts."

A good motivating stimulus will have great significance to your character, it will be pertinent to your story and it will be motive. That is, it will act to push the events in your story forward.

A good character reaction will show--or at least imply--the character's feeling, his action and his speech.

Why does this work? In a word context

To a "considerable degree, your readers will draw their conclusions as to the meaning of the focal character's reaction on the basis of context". In this case the context is "the stimulus or motivation that provokes it".

This works especially well if this reaction is in response to an "objectively written, non-introspective, physical reaction".

"Thus, a film editor may place a close-up of an actor's face directly after a shot of an actress lying dead in a coffin. Invariably, the audience will thereupon interpret the actor's expression, however blank, as one of grief."

So, if "you want a particular reaction pick a stimulus that will evoke it. A good external motivation makes your character's consequent behavior completely logical to your reader."

Two tips:
- Link motivation and reaction tightly.
- See each motivating stimulus as your character sees it. See it with her background, her attitudes, her dynamics and insights. THEN let her react in character.

That's it! I hope something about this discussion was helpful to you. This information represents only a fraction of what Dwight V. Swain writes about in chapter three of Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Photo credit: "Sunset Bliss..." by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. This is a great post! You can have the best story idea, but if your characters do not deliver, then the story will fail.

  2. I found Swain's book a number years ago. It's the best source of hard-headed practical advice I've ever run across.

    1. I agree! I hadn't heard of Dwight V. Swain until someone--I think it may have been antares--mentioned him to me in a comment. I'm astonished more writers don't mention him and his books on writing.

  3. Thanks for highlighting this point. Read DVS years ago, but I missed this. Thank you again.

    1. Thank you! If you have any other books on writing you'd like to recommend, I'm all ears. ;)

  4. This is great advice I'm glad you posted it. I've seen the book but have yet to purchase it. You've motivated me to do so. I look forward to the other topics in the book. You did a great job of explaining everything.

    1. Thanks! Appreciate it. Hope you like the book. :)


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