How To Track Your Character’s Emotional State
I’ll be writing about the video Tracking Your Characters Emotional State – writing advice for character arcs, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.
Tracking your character’s emotional state is an essential part of continuity when it comes to your character’s arc. When your character experiences emotions, you need to make sure you carry the ramifications of that with them into the subsequent scenes.
It’s always important to make sure your character’s emotions are appropriate to the scene they’re in, so if the scene is scary, make sure your character is scared, if the scene is heart-breaking, make sure they’re sad. But equally important is making sure that as your story moves forwards, their emotions keep moving with it rather than just changing moment to moment as if each new scene is a fresh start and they’re set back to neutral.
An example of a character’s emotional state not being tracked, and the negative impact that then has on the story, is from LOST, Season 1, The Moth. During this episode, Charlie, who is struggling with drug addiction, makes the choice to get rid of his supply of heroin. Of course, this leads Charlie to go through heroin withdrawal; he’s emotional and sweating and shaking. The next episode starts the following morning and Charlie is completely fine. He’s focused on getting peanut butter for Claire and not showing signs of the distress he was in just hours earlier. His emotional state has not been carried with him.
The impact of failing to track your characters emotional state in this way is that the character feels inconsistent and the audience is emotionally disconnected from them. You need to show the journey from one emotional state into another or the character is broken to suit the story, rather than moving through the story as part of it.
The art of tracking character’s emotional states successfully is known as arcing your character. If you want to take your character from one emotional state to another, even if those emotions are completely at odds to one anther, you absolutely can. But showing the process, the arc, is the only way to do it well. You can take your character from happy to sad, weak to strong, etc, as long as you take the audience on that journey with them.
The problem you will face as a writer is that carrying all these emotional states in your head at all times can be draining. If you’re moving between different characters and different scenes, and there’s quite a break between them, it can be hard to track them. And it gets a larger weight to carry the further into a series of books you get because you’re carrying historical emotions that will bump and flare up through the course of the story, or if you’re writing a film or television series you’ll encounter the same weight.
The best way to do it successfully is to find a way to chart your characters. I keep a spreadsheet of every character I have ever written in every book or script. I include anything that has happened to them of significance, any emotional bonds they have with other characters, anything they’re scared of or anything they’re passionate about. This is then something I can refer back to at any point when I’m writing or during the editing process to make sure they’re consistent and reacting to any given scenario I’ve put them in as they should.
I’ve been writing some of these characters for years, my Lilly Prospero Series for instance, and a lot happens to them during that time, and I’m also writing a number of other characters in TV and film scripts, as well as other books, and I can easily lose track of all those lives and emotions over the course of that time. Spreadsheets like this might seem like a crazy obsessive thing to do, but for me it makes sure I feel confident I’m doing the best job I can. Because that’s exactly what this is, my job, and I treat it as such. I don’t want to break my characters, and this is how I guard against it.
Spreadsheets aren’t for everyone, and some people will feel in control of managing these emotional states for everybody they create in their head. If you can do that I’m in awe, because I really can’t. If you can’t manage that, like me, I highly recommend finding a way of tracking your characters emotional states that works for you.
You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get!