Written by JJ Barnes
Tracking your character’s emotional state is an essential part of continuity when it comes to your character’s arc. When your character experiences emotions, you need to make sure you carry the ramifications of that with them into the subsequent scenes.
Make Emotions Scene Appropriate
It’s always important to make sure your character’s emotions are appropriate to the scene they’re in. If the scene is scary, make sure your character is scared. If the scene is heart-breaking, make sure they’re sad.
But equally important is making sure that as your story moves forwards, their emotions keep moving with it. Don’t change your characters from moment to moment as if each new scene is a fresh start and they’re set back to neutral.
When Your Character’s Emotional State Isn’t Tracked
An example of a character’s emotional state not being tracked, and the negative impact that then has on the story, is from LOST, Season 1, The Moth. During this episode, Charlie, who is struggling with drug addiction, makes the choice to get rid of his supply of heroin. Of course, this leads Charlie to go through heroin withdrawal; he’s emotional and sweating and shaking.
The next episode starts the following morning and Charlie is completely fine. He’s focused on getting peanut butter for Claire and not showing signs of the distress he was in just hours earlier. His emotional state has not been carried with him.
The impact of failing to track your character’s emotional state in this way is that the character feels inconsistent. Inconsistent characters will cause your audience to be emotionally disconnected from them.
You need to show the journey from one emotional state into another. Don’t break your character to suit the story. They should be moving through the story as part of it, affected by events around them continually.
Arcing Your Characters
The art of tracking character’s emotional states successfully is known as arcing your character. You can take your character from one emotional state to another, even if those emotions are completely at odds to one another.
Showing the process, the arc, is the only way to do it well. You can take your character from happy to sad, weak to strong, etc. Just be sure you take the audience on that journey with them.
The problem you will face as a writer is that carrying all these emotional states in your head at all times can be draining. If you’re moving between different characters and different scenes, and there’s quite a break between them, it can be hard to track them. And it gets a larger weight to carry the further into a series of books you get. You’ll be carrying historical emotions that will bump and flare up through the course of the story.
How To Track Your Character’s Emotional State
The best way to do it successfully is to find a way to chart your character’s emotional state, and everything else. I keep a spreadsheet of every character I have ever written in every book or script. I include anything that has happened to them of significance. Any emotional bonds they have with other characters. Anything they’re scared of or anything they’re passionate about. This is then something I can refer back to at any point when I’m writing or during the editing process. I can make sure they’re consistent and reacting to any given scenario I’ve put them in as they should.
I’ve been writing some of these characters for years, my Lilly Prospero Series for instance. A lot happens to those during that time, and a lot happens in my own life too. I’m also writing a number of other characters in TV and film scripts, as well as other books. I can easily lose track of all those lives and emotions over the course of that time. Spreadsheets like this might seem like a crazy obsessive thing to do, but for me it makes sure I feel confident I’m doing the best job I can. Because that’s exactly what this is, my job, and I treat it as such. I don’t want to break my characters, and this is how I guard against it.
Find Your Own Way
Spreadsheets aren’t for everyone. Some people will feel in control of managing these emotional states for everybody they create in their head. If you can do that I’m in awe, because I really can’t. If you can’t manage that, like me, I highly recommend finding a way of tracking your characters emotional states that works for you.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose