“since feeling is first…”

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you

— e.e. cummings

That has always been one of my favorite stanzas of poetry.  Many years ago, a couple of years before I met my wife, cummings’ words helped me understand why I had to break up with a woman I was dating who was making me miserable.  I wrote the lines in a small notebook of quotes — one that I still keep and even add to occasionally — along with a few other phrases that captured the angst of mid-twenties failed love.  Eventually I grew up a little, moved on, built my life with Nancy, and my need for that little notebook lessened. It had been a while since I’d read through some of the older entries in the notebook, but a couple of weeks ago, while rummaging through my bookshelves for something else, I found it and sat down with it again.

I’m working with a graduate student in writing; his university requires that he have an outside mentor to advise him on his final project, and he chose me.  He writes well, has some terrific ideas, and is generally making good progress on his work.  But he has been unable to connect with the emotions of his main character, in part I think, because his project is, at some level, autobiographical, and in connecting with his character he would be connecting with elements of his own emotional life that he’s not ready to face.  The point is, the last batch of chapters he sent me came in right around the time I rediscovered that little quote book, and I found myself thinking that cummings’ love poem also works as a statement about art in general and writing in particular.

My student isn’t the only young writer I’ve encountered who shies away from delving into the emotions of his or her characters.  In part I believe this is because whatever scant exposure students have to creative writing in primary and secondary schools tends to focus on the mechanics of story telling:  plot and description, grammar and sentence structure.  The syntax of things.  And in part I also think this is because it’s simply easier to tell readers what happened and why, than it is to explain how events made someone feel.  I recall working at a writers’ conference a few years ago and finding again and again that the writing samples I read were devoid of emotional content.  Not all of them, of course.  The best pieces I read were those in which the writer went beyond narrative and exposition to explore the psyche of the point of view characters.  But these were the exceptions.  Most of the sample chapters or short stories skimmed along the surface like a flat stone on water, skipping from plot point to plot point without ever showing us what lay beneath.

I would never tell a writer to ignore the rules of grammar, to jettison structure and form.  Turning that perfect phrase is one of the great joys of writing; discovering a passage of elegant prose is one of the great rewards of reading.  But I have said before, and will repeat until the day I stop writing, that character is the key to great storytelling.  And there is no character without emotion, without feeling.

This may seem so elementary as to be worthless.  But if you’re struggling right now with a story or book that just seems flat, that isn’t working at some level you can’t identify, it may well be that you haven’t fully tapped the emotions of your main characters.  I’ve been writing professionally for 15 years and I still struggle with this from time to time.  I’ll get so caught up in other elements of my story — the intricacies of my narrative, the details of my setting, the flow of my prose and the sound of my dialogue — that I forget the emotional foundation.  I’ll look over my most recent chapter and find that it reads well, but that something is missing.  And then I realize what it is.

We are emotional beings.  There are days when I notice every detail of my surroundings and others when I stumble around oblivious to everything I see and hear and touch.  There are days when I’m so busy that I barely have time to breathe, and there are days when I laze around for hours doing nothing at all.  But I’ve never experienced a day without emotions.  I’d wager that I’ve never gone an entire hour without feeling something.  That’s just how we are.  And that’s how our characters ought to be, too.

since feeling is first….

For our characters to do what they are supposed to do — capture the hearts of our readers — they have to be more than conduits for storytelling.  They have to be more than props, they have to be more than eyes and ears.  Our characters have to be living, breathing people, or at least they have to be as close to alive as literary creations can be.  In other words, they have to feel.  And your readers need to experience their emotions right along with them.

David B. Coe


29 comments to “since feeling is first…”

  • So true in so many ways. The whole point of reading is to engage with the characters and to feel like you are there with them, sharing their joy and pain. When every word is infused with emotion it makes the reading so much more satisfying. You know its been a good book when you have that rare moment when you get to the end and you feel like you will miss the character(s).

  • This really resonates for me, both because I think you’re right, and because it’s something I need to remind myself of from time to time. Perhaps it’s my academic background, perhaps it’s my working class English roots, but I have a deep cynical streak when it comes to the expression or exploration of emotion. I grew up in a culture which valued wit and stoicism above all, and becoming a scholar has reinforced that side of my personality. I have to be very careful of my writing getting overly clever–not dry but certainly wry, knowing–and lacking in “heart” (even writing that word makes me wince). Ironically, I’m also a very passionate person who feels things deeply, and I always think there’s lots of emotion in my books, though I’ve had to work to bring it to the surface. OK. Enough therapeutic autobiography for one day… Thanks David, for the reminder.

  • Ah, David, just in time to help me out. Thanks. You’re right, of course, that characters and there emotions are what make the story worthwhile. More so, you’re right that no matter how seasoned a writer we might be, we slip up from time to time. This little reminder to think about emotion is wonderful. Thanks again.

  • David, this is a great post!

    I actually learned to express the harsher emotions I had to swallow through writing. It helped me learn how to deal instead of suppress. And gave me a sort of freedom I’d never felt before. I enjoyed this post very much.

    Good luck to your student!

    Happy writing

  • David, this is a great post!

    I actually learned to express the harsher emotions I had to swallow through writing. It helped me learn how to deal instead of suppress. And gave me a sort of freedom I’d never felt before. I enjoyed this post very much. When I was finished with the rough draft of my WIP, I thought, if I can make just one person feel what I did when I was writing it, then I’d be happy.

    Good luck to your student!

    Happy writing

  • WBNZ, yes I know that feeling of missing the characters I’ve been reading. I’ll add to that — as I writer, I know I’ve gotten it right at the end if I can bring tears to my own eyes reading back through what I’ve written. I’ve done that a few times, and it’s a wonderful feeling. Engaging with the characters — yes, that’s the perfect phrase for it. Thanks.

    A.J., I had a conversation this very morning with a friend of mine who teaches U.S. history here at the university. He’s a wonderful friend, and we speak often of politics, history, writing. But this morning he was asking me about my decision to leave academia and what had driven me to try writing history in the first place. I was able to articulate exactly why I went into history, but not why I found it so unsatisfying. That has always been far more amorphous in my head. But you pointed me toward the reason. There was something too dry about academic writing. I had to sequester my heart too much.

    Stuart, glad to be of help. As I said, I have to remind myself all the time. Hope the WIP is going well.

  • Thanks, Hinny. I remember after losing my parents I processed a lot of my emotion through writing, and in the process produced what was at the time some of my best work. I hope the WIP is a huge success for you.

  • David,
    Thank you!!! You just let me see something in an entirely new way. Something I’ve had no words for. (And I’m supposed to be a writer…)

    I seldom think about my characters’ emotions, except as a *result of conflict*. I need to see the other side of that coin too — emotions as the cause of conflict and the worsening of conflict. Emotion and passion as the center of the character instead of the result of other things
    I needed this today. I just did.

  • The coolest thing I heard so far from one of my beta readers was that my characters felt like real people (and that she thought it was as good as other novels she’s read–high praise coming from her, but that’s another story). She’s a big reader of most things sci-fi, fantasy and horror, so that was nice. I sort of pride myself on characterization and to hear that I at least succeeded with making them seem human and real was awesome. I’m big into trying to keep natural dialogue and keeping my characters three-dimensional. Now if others will feel the same way I’ll be pretty happy with it.

  • “as I writer, I know I’ve gotten it right at the end if I can bring tears to my own eyes reading back through what I’ve written. I’ve done that a few times, and it’s a wonderful feeling.”

    This was exactly how I felt with my own WIP. That was my thought as well, that if I could evoke that emotion in myself then hopefully it would evoke the same in other readers.

  • David> love the ee cummings quote… I hadn’t heard it before. I try to get to the emotional center of my characters, but I’m not fond of being overly emotional myself. I hate crying, I hate being all wound up (is it any surprise that I have a MC who doesn’t like being emotional either? And that being emotional makes her magic more dangerous? Not really.)

    Speaking of good quotes, I was at an open house for a program here at the college, and one of my colleagues said this about writing: “language–grammar and synta–are the only tools we have, whether we’re breaking hearts or selling lawnmowers…” I thought it was great. Breaking hearts or selling lawnmowers, it’s all the same in a certain kind of way.

  • Faith, thanks. In reading my student’s work, I’ve recognized what is sometimes missing from my own. As you say, my characters are often too reactive. Emotions aren’t just about stimuli and response. They’re always there, sometimes calm, sometimes roiled. Still working on this in my own work.

    Daniel, I know just what you mean. Getting the characters right, touching on the emotions and evoking a response from readers — that’s by far the most rewarding part of this for me. Sounds like you’re getting it done in your work. Congrats.

  • Emily, thanks for that quote! I love it! With your permission I might post that on my FB wall…. Emotions are dangerous things — and I think in a good character, in an exciting book, they are always simmering just below the boil-over point, threatening to spill over into unrestrained passion or violence. Your aversion to emotional outpouring, it seems to me, would be a valuable tool as you write your MC.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for the quote and the post. Sometimes my husband also says “It’s important to be selfish sometimes,” because emotion is an important, or even pivotal, piece of human nature. I feel like I’ve done a decent job of incorporating emotions into my own WIP (perhaps more than I ought), but I also worry that the emotional tone is too uniform throughout and from character to character – too much an imposition of my emotions only. Do you have any suggestions for connecting to the different emotional centers of each of your POV characters? As Faith noted, the easiest way does seem to be reactionary.

  • “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
    –Robert Frost

    The same, of course, is true for joy.

  • Hep, Thanks for the comment and the question. I try to establish emotions for my characters that are pre-existing conditions, in a way, but I certainly think that most of the emotional content in any novel is going to be reactive. We’re taking our characters and putting them through all sorts of stuff — torturing them, in essence, because that’s what writers do. But the way my characters react to those situations is often the best way I have of differentiating them from one another. And a lot of the prep work I do on my characters — the backgrounds I work up for them, sometimes the short fiction I write from their POV before tackling the novel — informs those different reactions. I try to make certain that none of my characters responds to things just the way I would, and that none of their responses are too much alike (within reason, of course — certain things evoke a common response from nearly everyone). Everyone has their own emotional baseline — some are wound a little tighter than others. Some are demonstrative, while others keep it locked inside. These are the things that help you determine how each character responds.

  • Wolf, thanks for the quote. I love Frost, too. And yes, this one is perfect for the discussion

  • Hepseba ALHH

    And now I see. Using emotional baseline as a/the primary defining characteristic of each character sounds really useful. And now it sounds obvious, but, yeah… Thank you.

  • All of this seems obvious AFTER it’s pointed out to us. None of it is easy. For any of us. Thanks, Hep.

  • Sarah

    Spot on. Thank you. You’re absolutely right that sometimes the blockage in the writing comes from fear of emotions we (by which I mean I) don’t want to feel or don’t want to dig up from the past. But it only seems obvious when someone else says it. I read the autobiography of an abused child (The Little Prisoner) Saturday and the author’s description of her stepdad made me realize what I had been trying to suppress for some weeks, namely that my MC was an abused child. She can’t be the person she is now without having grown up in a really messed up family. Now I have to write some child abuse scenes – I actually feel sick to my stomach thinking about it, as if by writing those scenes I will be witnessing child abuse and doing nothing. But it has to be done.

  • Wow, Sarah, that’s amazing. Those epiphanies about our characters can be so powerful at times that it’s hard to distinguish them from similar revelations about ourselves or those we love. Thanks for sharing this with us. I don’t envy you having to write those scenes, but I’m absolutely certain that you will emerge from the experience a more accomplished storyteller. Talk about trial by fire…. Best of luck.

  • This is a great post, David, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently with regards to a short story I’m working on. The problem I’ve run into now, though, is how to make sure the emotion I put into my stories doesn’t come across as trite or, in the case of this particular story, overly-dramatic. I find it really hard to draw the line between strong, realistic emotions and my characters acting like drama queens!

  • David, oddly enough, the Beetle is studying e.e. cummings in class this week! He brought home a copy of “maggie and milly and molly and may” for me to read. Before this week, I was woefully undereducated as far as cummings’ work is concerned, and had always assumed I didn’t like him because of that damned poem about the wet wheelbarrow. But when the Beetle read aloud to me, and reached the line may came home with a smooth round stone as small as a world and as large as alone., I burst into tears.

    Clearly I need to give cummings another chance. 😀

  • Thanks for the kind comment, Amy. I don’t think there’s any secret to finding that balance you mention — between strong and over-the-top. It’s a matter of trial and error, of knowing the voice for your book and the particulars of your character. What works for one story or character might be way too much or way too little for another. As writers all we can do is experiment until we get it right. Best of luck with it. I’m sure you’ll find the right level of emotion as you work through it.

    Misty, yeah, cummings is great, I think. I admit that I haven’t read much of his work — I don’t read a lot of poetry generally. But he’s long been one of my favorites, and that line you mention is beautiful.

  • This is so true — sometimes it’s easier to suppress the emotions than to deal with them. For some reason, I find romance harder to express than anger. One of my challenges in this rewrite is to make my MC less of a cold-hearted-you-know-what and more of a feeling person. I overdid it — what I thought passed as “character deliberately suppressing her feelings” was caught by beta readers and interpreted as “character incapable of feeling anything, and by the way, why are we supposed to like her?” Plus, it was easier to get to the end of the first draft. I wrote a lot faster when I didn’t stop to dwell too much on how she might be feeling, but now I have a lot that needs fixing. *Insert wise quote about working too fast and doing a shoddy job rather than putting in more effort and doing a great job here.*

  • Moira, it’s not about doing shoddy work, I’m sure. This is hard and getting it right the first time through is something that few writers can do. (I can’t.) That’s why good beta readers are invaluable. Creating the repressed, but vulnerable hero who doesn’t deal easily with emotion but winds up likable? Really hard. You’ll get it eventually.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Really good post, David. Writing about emotion is so hard for me…it is the biggest thing I struggle with…though not for the reasons you give above. With me, the problem is: I think it’s obvioius. I can tell what the characer is feeling. I think that means that it comes over in the writing…and it doesn’t. Not unless I say it.

    I’ve been having a lot of fun with some lectures by a woman named Margie Lawson, who is a therapist (and therefore has seen a lot of people get emotional) who is also a writer who teaches classes on expressing emotion more vividly. You might Google her to see if she has anything that might be useful to your young writer.

  • David,

    Fair enough. By the time I reached an acceptable end, it was more like the third draft, and at that point I was fried; I’d pushed myself to the end and I couldn’t see what was wrong with it. Beta readers *were* invaluable — and distance, of course. But having the errors pointed out (and spotting some myself) left me feeling like I’d somehow rushed the job all the same.

    What Lamplighter just said is also true. It’s easy to think that because you know what the character is feeling, it has come across in the writing. So there are places where I thought I was being subtle where the emotion didn’t come across at all.

  • Thanks, Jagi. I certainly find at times that the “Isn’t this clear?” thing is a problem for me, too. Someone witness a murder or losing a loved one — it’s hard to deal with these emotions in a way that doesn’t seem hackneyed and obvious. For me, that’s where my background work on characters comes into play. I can relate the feelings of grief, for instance, and that’s fine. But if I can tie it to something in my character’s past, something that allows me to deepen his/her development and perhaps tie an experience to an event in the book, then I’ve accomplished two things at once: enriching my character and furthering my narrative. Thanks for the cite — I’ll take a look at her work.

    Moira, what I wrote above to Jagi also applies to your comment. Sometimes it’s not just about writing emotion, but also linking that emotion to bigger things in your characters’ lives. That can help us get at emotional content without delving into stuff we feel has been covered by a ten thousand writers before us.