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What the Incredible Hulk Can Teach Us about Emotion in Fiction

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Today’s guest is Harrison Demchick [1], an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and author of the literary horror novel The Listeners. Harrison came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than three dozen published novels and memoirs. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry.

Of his post today, Harrison says: “My job, as an editor, is to help writers. Most of the time, I’m only able to do that on a one-on-one basis with clients. The advantage of a guest blog like this is that I can reach a lot of writers, and maybe provide them some advice that will help them through their next draft. I love the art and craft of writing. I understand how and why it works. It’s why I do what I do, and I’m not doing my job unless I can convey that clearly to writers everywhere, whether they be current or future clients or simply readers of a terrific blog.”

Harrison is currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at the Writer’s Ally [2], and you can also connect with him on Facebook [3] and Twitter [4].

[pullquote]“Harrison’s honesty and knowledge blew me away and opened my eyes to so many possibilities. He put me on a path that has made me feel so much more confident as a writer, and thanks to him, I am proud to release my first book, Renhala. Thank you, Harrison, for without your guidance, I’d still be biting my fingernails, sitting in front of the computer in a puddle of anxiety.” – Amy Joy Lutchen, author of Renhala[/pullquote]

What the Incredible Hulk Can Teach Us about Emotion in Fiction

Like Tony Stark, I am a huge fan of the way Bruce Banner loses control and turns into an enormous green rage monster.

There’s a lot to love about it, whether from the standpoint of the Hulk as an enduring comic book character or in terms of the special effects wizardry that led to some of the very best scenes in the Joss Whedon-written/directed Avengers. But what I love especially is what the Hulk can teach us about the importance of reaction when it comes to establishing conflict and tension in a manuscript.

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Hulk in 1962, they were establishing not only a fascinating action-fueled take on the Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy, but also a paean to that classic rule of writing: Show, don’t tell. As much as the Hulk may say it, the Hulk’s very existence on page or screen shows that he is very, very angry.

But suppose we didn’t see the Hulk. Suppose we stuck with plain old ordinary Bruce Banner. And suppose that, in the next scene, Banner were to say, “Boy, I was really angry back there.” As readers and viewers, we wouldn’t really buy it, would we? In good writing, we as readers are meant to experience the same emotional highs and lows as the characters of whom we read, but if Banner’s anger is only told—if we never see him turn into the Hulk, or even struggle not to—then that anger doesn’t feel real.

Readers take their emotional cues from your characters, and it’s crucial to remember this as you build the scenes that comprise your manuscript. If your protagonist’s mother dies, but your characters don’t appear to react to it, then you can’t expect readers to feel a sense of loss. If your protagonist discovers she’s passed the bar, but shows no joy, then you can’t expect this plot point to carry with it any sense of triumph. When your characters don’t react to the things that happen to them, what you signal to the reader is that these things aren’t important. If they’re not significant to the character, why should they be significant to us?

And this has a dramatic impact upon conflict and tension. Conflict emerges from obstacles standing in the way of your protagonist attaining what she wants and needs. Failure to react to those obstacles emotionally, or otherwise for that matter, indicates the absence of want or need on the part of the character—or at the very least that these wants and needs aren’t worth getting worked up about. No effort to succeed means no conflict. No fear of failure means no tension.

But let’s be realistic: You can’t have every character transforming into an enormous green rage monster every time something goes wrong. Most characters don’t wear their emotions on their quickly torn sleeves the way Bruce Banner does, and if they did, the resulting story would be pretty exhausting. Too much reaction dulls the impact when something genuinely serious transpires.

The Listeners Cover [5]Yet you do need to show how your characters feel. I recently edited a fantasy novel in which the protagonist and his army were fighting a war against supernatural entities. Following each of the first three battles, the narration would describe how angry the protagonist had been, whether due to the loss of life or the incompetence of the battle plan. And each time, it was unconvincing, because during those battles, there was no indication at all, shown or told, of the protagonist’s anger. A delayed reaction might as well be no reaction at all.

So what do you do? You determine the reaction that best fits your individual character. Bruce Banner Hulks out. But maybe your character gets very quiet when angry. Maybe she overreacts to something else entirely. Maybe she watches Survivor or intentionally overcooks her burgers. Maybe the reaction is small and maybe it’s big, but whatever it is, it’s right there in the moment, clear and shown so that readers can feel it. And with that, readers remain with your character, part of the emotional experience and resulting conflict and tension.

In other words, all characters need a monster in them. It may not be an enormous green rage monster, but it is, like the Hulk, an uncontrolled emotional response. These responses are crucial in making our characters human. And as cues, they make the reader part of your character’s life the way they could never be otherwise. Then we get conflict, and tension, and a genuinely engaging character with a genuinely engaging story.

What are some ways—big or small—that you show your characters’ emotions?