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Monday, September 21, 2015

Raw vs. Subdued Emotions: Getting them Right in Your Story

Last week I talked about point of view penetration, and in that post I said that "Often I see writers who zoom in and zoom out of their character's viewpoint seemingly randomly. I'll see scenes written in distant third-person when it would be better in close third-person."

I pointed out that how deep you want to get into your character's viewpoint depends on the effect you want for your scene, what makes a better story, and how raw and tense the emotion is.

So today I'm going to give some pointers to help you discern when your character's emotions are (likely) raw or subdued.

Raw Emotions

Raw emotions are usually very intense. They're fresh, so the person feels them sharper, sometimes to the point of being irrational.

As human beings, we usually feel raw emotions in the moment. The temporally closer we are to the incident that incited those emotions, the more raw our emotions will be. If I just found out that a friend back-stabbed me, my anger would be sharp and somewhat uncontrolled (at least internally). But the next day, they will likely be more controlled, more subdued, as the situation "sinks in."

Here are some things to keep in mind to help:

The more severe the incident, the more raw the emotions.

The more unexpected the incident, the more raw the emotions. For unexpected incidents, people usually feel surprise or shock first. So, you might want to consider that when writing.

It's not unusual for people to not be able to label what they are feeling in the moment. They might not realize they are mad, for example. Sometimes they even deny it. I had a friend who started freaking out one day, and I said she was panicking--"I AM NOT PANICKING!" she said. But the next day, she was talking to someone else about what happened and said "I started having a panic attack." 

With very raw emotions, people often don't realize what they are feeling until later, until they can put a word to it. So usually when you want to render very raw emotions, you won't want to put a label to it.

For certain incidents, a person may feel multiple emotions at once.

Here are some examples of what people think and say with raw emotions:

"Oh my gosh! No! No! That was my son!"

"Where is she? What have you done? What did you do to her?"

"Shut up! SHUT UP! This is your fault!"

"Dead? He's dead? But I just saw him, yesterday."

"He got a us tickets? For backstage? I can't believe this--we get to meet them. What if they give us autographs?"

Subdued Emotions

On the other side of the spectrum, we have subdued emotions. I'm calling them "subdued" because I couldn't find a better word, so bear with me. Subdued emotions aren't the same as suppressed emotions. When I say "subdued," I just mean "not raw."

Raw emotions usually become more subdued as time goes on. I might have been furious in the moment I found out that my friend back-stabbed me, but a week later, I might have more of a subdued anger, or I might be sad when I look back on the incident. I'll likely even label my emotions, and say something like, "When Chelsey back-stabbed me I was so mad, but now I hang out with different people."

Now, people can still feel some raw emotions with subdued emotions. If I was still upset about the incident, I might say. "Chelsey back-stabbed me, the jerk. Now I hang out with different people. She thinks she's gotten away with it."

The words "the jerk" and "She thinks she's gotten away with it" tell you that I still have some intense feelings about it.

One of Snape's dominating qualities is his inability to let things go and move forward. So even though he's superb at controlling his emotions for occlumency, his raw emotions of hurt often manifest themselves alongside subdued emotions, like when talking about James to Harry.

(I find it interesting that while he's the character who can control his thoughts and emotions the best, he's the one that can't get over them.)

Your characters might be haunted by past incidents. When they think about those incidents, they could still feel very raw, even if it's years later. However, they will never be as raw as they were in the moment. You won't get words like "Oh my gosh! No! No! That was my son!" ten years after your character's son was in an accident.

In the moment


10+ Years Later

People are more rational with subdued emotions.

Here are some subdued statements:

"I thought for sure he had taken her, raped her maybe."

"When I found out Josh had died, I couldn't believe it."

"I blamed everything on Stacy."

"I'm still sad about it sometimes, but I try not to let it get to me."

"Jeff got us backstage passes. It was awesome."

Emotions and Writing

 Sometimes when I'm helping with unpublished stories, I see a shocking and/or emotional incident happen with a subdued response. A character might have just found out her significant other cheated on her and the prose will say, "I was so mad." Instead of saying something like, "Was it with Caroline? Please don't let him say it was Caroline. Oh gosh . . . "

The more raw (and important to your story) your character's emotions are, the better it is to get deep into their point of view, usually. That means you'll probably want to get to Point 4 on the point of view spectrum I talked about last week.

Think about how your character really views the world in that moment, how they think, and what they notice. In a pretty raw moment, they might notice that they are hotter, or that they can hear their blood pumping, but they might not realize they are glaring.

In very raw moments, the emotions will be manifested in their thoughts and words and internal sensations, and probably not external signals as much. When you write, "I glared at her," it makes glaring something the character is conscious of. In reality, when we experience very raw emotions, we might not realize we are glaring at all.

Keep in mind that how your character reacts and how raw his emotions are will depend on his characterization. Last year I did a post on the range of your character's emotions. You can see that here. Some characters (and people) have a very wide and intense range of emotions. Others seem to feel next to nothing. Some characters are more prone to feeling a certain way than others. So all of that will likely come into play.

Plus, how your character expresses those emotions will depend on their characterization as well. Some may have very raw emotions, but give the outward appearance of being somewhat subdued. For viewpoint characters like this, you'll want to make it raw internally, but their dialogue subdued--which can make a fascinating contrast. For a character who wants attention, you could have them feel subdued emotion and have them try to make it sound like it's raw to other people. I could go on, but that's drifting into a another, more complex subject--one I've touched on in other posts.

Good luck, and don't forget, I'll be a guest at Salt Lake Comic Con this week. Feel free to say hi. I'll try to bring something fun back as a giveaway for you all.


  1. These are some great pointers. It is supper important to know what is going on emotionally with your characters and being able to respond with the right words.

  2. awesome post!!! I'll keep that in mind while writing :)


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