As readers, we all know a character’s emotions can make or break a story. Emotions are what connects us as humans and they are also what connects us to fictional characters. Last week I talked about using The Emotion Thesaurus to find fresh ways for your characters to express their feelings, but what if you have no clue how they feel? Are they mad, afraid, happy, all of the above? This where an emotion journal can be indispensable.
In short, an emotion journal is a log of experiences you’ve had that you record using these steps:
1. Write down all the things you feel at the time of the event
2. On a scale from 1% – 100% rate how strong the emotion is
3. Briefly explain why you’re having that emotion.
4. A week or two later, repeat the same process for the same event. Re-rate your emotions and write a short explanation on why you feel different.
Below is an example of what your emotion journal might look like.
Event: Car accident
|Emotion||When it happened||Explanation||A couple of weeks later||Explanation|
|Surprised||100%||I didn’t see her turning the corner||50%||I’m still surprised that the accident happened, but less so. Car accidents happen daily.|
|Angry at myself||90%||I should have seen her coming||10%||Accidents happen. I’m only human.|
|Angry at the other driver||70%||She should have seen me coming||10%||Accidents happen. She’s only human|
|Nervous||100%||This is my spouse’s car. They’re going to kill me||0%||My spouse wasn’t mad. They were actually more relieved that I was okay.|
|Annoyed||85%||I can’t even get the other driver’s information because all she can do is cry||10%||She was young and a new driver. I might have done the same as a teenager.|
|Stressed||70%||This is my spouse’s car. They’re going to kill me||100%||My whole back-end is totalled, with the age of the car, it isn’t worth repairing.|
|Thankful||0%||—||90%||I’m glad no one got hurt.|
|Excited||0%||—||80%||My spouse and I decided to get a new car|
So why take the time to write down how you feel both when the event just happened, as well as a couple of weeks later? You should write down both because the way you feel at the time of the event and the emotions you have after some time has passed are often very different. For instance, in the above example emotions like annoyed and angry fade to almost nothing, while new emotions like thankful and excited emerge. You can also have the same emotions, but for different reasons (see stressed).
Keep in mind that using an emotion journal doesn’t mean that your characters have to be in the exact same situation you were. The purpose of the journal is to help you start building a foundation for your character’s emotions. For example, you went for a medical test because the doctor had concerns. How you felt while you were waiting for the results could be applied to a character in another waiting situation. A criminal waiting for a verdict, a teenager waiting for their crush to call etc. Of course, the emotions in all these situations will vary, but being able to relate to your characters is always a great start! No matter how small the relation.
Did your car break down? Write about it. Did you get a promotion? Write about it. Did your best friend win the lottery? Pray that they share and then, you guessed it, write about it!
How do you keep your characters’ emotions real?