Writing Character Emotions: Lessons From Walter White And Jessica Meuse

Writing Character Emotions: Lessons From Walter White And Jessica Meuse

“Wit is the epitaph of an emotion.”

Friedrich Nietzsche



Okay, I’ll be honest. In the winter, I become a TV junky.  While I’m confessing, you may as well know that I’m also a closeted fan of American Idol and The Voice. These shows create enough white-noise to make me forget I’m writing, especially at the end of the day when the need for sleep tangos with my goal of reaching a higher word count, and my neck is stiff from sitting at the computer all day.  Determined to meet or exceed my productivity goals, I often take my laptop into the family room, settle into a comfy chair and let the television drone in the background.

Last Tuesday, I was hammering away on the first draft of a novel that seems to have more tentacles than an octopus, half-listening to Jessica Meuse’s performance, when American Idol judge Harry Connick, Jr., completely punctured my writing bubble with a jarring critique, not of her song, but of her facial expression during the performance.  I really want to like Jessica.  She looks every inch the rock star with her hot pink hair, and she writes her own music (http://bit.ly/1jjAMJt).  I have a natural inclination to support her based on writing solidarity, and yet, I can’t shake the feeling that something is missing.

Harry asks Jessica, “Why were you smiling? Do you understand the words?” The song, Pumped Up Kicks is about a school shooting (“…you better run, run, run, there’s a bullet in my gun…”). He has a point.  A song this controversial should invoke all kinds of emotion in the audience, but there is no such emotional UMPHHH to the performance. In fact, the expression on her face reminds me more of a beauty pageant contestant than a musician. I feel like I was expecting a ride on the Ferris wheel and ended up on a Big Wheel, instead.  For all Jessica’s beauty and talent, she comes across as emotionally wooden. 


The last thing I want to do is dismiss or disrespect this contestant. She has the courage to stand on stage and sing for millions of viewers, knowing that, within minutes, her performance is going to be analyzed publicly.  I can’t imagine standing on a stage having chapters of my book read while millions of voters weigh in on the material after a panel of judges have ripped it to shreds. But the fact remains that, during each performance, she has the same one-size-fits-all smile, the same detached look in her eyes.  As a performer, she’s probably heard it all before, and her expression verges on boredom as the judges speak. Two of them dismiss the notion that it is inappropriate for the contestant to smile while singing about a school shooting. Harry disagrees, and I think he has it right. Music should move people, one way or another.  The song she chose should be offensive or disquieting or provoke some emotion, but it doesn’t, because the emotional cues are missing.  If this performance were a book, I would wonder why I should care about it.  A book that doesn’t grab me quickly is doomed to be returned the library, deleted from my iBook shelf or donated to charity.


What  makes my lack of emotional connection remotely relevant is that I’m such an easy mark. Thirty seconds into Josh Groban’s performance of his song You Are Loved,  I was struggling to hold back tears.  I nearly got kicked out of a bookstore for openly weeping while reading Marley and Me in the aisle.  Okay, that’s not true. They didn’t threaten to kick me out, they just suggested that maybe I would be more comfortable if I finished the book at home.  Garth Stein’s book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, left me feeling ragged and completely drained when I finished it. It was that good. I walked around for days after I finished the book wondering what my dog was thinking. Christopher Moore’s book, The Stupidest Angel (http://bit.ly/1gOCOJO) had me howling with laughter, while Gillian Flynn’s, Gone Girl (http://bit.ly/1fSz2yU) chilled me to the bone.  I can only aspire to write something as emotionally brilliant as these writers, but my point is this: For me to feel nothing means that the entertainer (or writer, if it’s a character in a book) is not there on some level.

Infamous chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cooker Walter White is an enviable example of writers who clearly understand the impact of character emotion. Love him or hate him, Walter, seamlessly portrayed by actor Bryan Cranston, is not someone who makes the viewer feel nothing.  Far from it. By the time the Breaking Bad finale aired, Walter White was not in the least redeemable, and yet, I sat glued to the storyline to the bitter end, holding on to the edge of my seat, waiting to see what new catastrophe Walter’s miserable choices would bring him and those he loved.  Walter’s weakness, his greed and narcissism and the way he mentally pimped his cancer so he could continue to cook meth for reasons which had nothing to do with providing for his family, stirred my feelings of contempt and disgust.  Watching this character unravel was a primer in how to create complex character emotion. With each character arc, we move further away from the pathos of this desperate, panicked, vulnerable man, to an arrogant, hardened criminal, who, by his own admission continued to cook meth long after he needed the money for one simple reason: “Because I liked it.”

Feeling nothing is the last emotion a performer or a writer wants their audience or their readers to experience.  Becca Puglisi’s book The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression gives writers solid tips for creating character emotion.  Writing a character who responds in an unconventional way isn’t a bad thing, but if there is no emotional response in the character, we have to know why.  A character who doesn’t react to winning the lottery or being told a loved one has died is an emotional minefield, rich with conflict, but the writer has to give us insight about why he reacts (or doesn’t react) to a situation that calls for a strong reaction.  I struggle with creating authentic character emotions, but I know when I have character responses right within a scene, because I feel it.  My heart races when a character is in danger, or I become angry at a particularly nasty character and have to stop myself from prematurely offing him. For writers who have difficulty visualizing the show versus tell technique with writing character emotions, Karen Lotter provides excellent examples of original and reworked passages in her blog post at http://bit.ly/1gfRlTy.

Like singing contestants vying for votes, writers also compete. We compete with ourselves to improve our craft with each revision, each new project, always aware that readers have a vote, too. They can buy our books, or they can bypass them.  A great cover may attract their attention, but the characters hold (or lose) their attention for the long haul.  As a reader, I have read both great and mediocre books, and I’ll bet you have, as well.  Be honest.  How many bestsellers have you picked up and put down because you couldn’t relate to the characters? My answer is too many to count.  How many times have you finished a remarkable book by a brand new author, and immediately searched for a backlist? My answer is still too many to count.  Books like this draw us so deeply into the story, that there is almost a sense of loss when we have to part company with the characters.  Emotions make or break our writing, our performances, and in the end, whether we have a book that the reader not only connects with, but one that impacts her long after she has turned the last page.