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I have a character that, by design, quickly jumps between emotions. To put it into human terms, I have pictured scenes where he will, literally, within the span of a sentence, go from hysterically laughing to bored/work-mode. It's meant to capture his mental instability but I am having problems conveying that in a way that is satisfying to the reader, yet also conveys the fact that he hops around on the emotional spectrum a lot. A simple example would be:

C1 doubled over cackling maniacally at the scene in front of him. The fires of hell had nothing on the carnage unfolding around him. "I thought you said you were going to bail them out," C2 muttered in exasperation. C1 straightened up. "I get it. Business before pleasure." His exasperation matched C2's as he stepped into the fray.

For whatever reason, that doesn't seem like enough. It's like I can either capture his quick shifts in emotion or explain it out to the reader and it feels like neither accomplish the goal

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  • maybe you could show his inner turmoil, it would help the reader understand the mood changes Jun 9, 2015 at 2:16

2 Answers 2

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Just because a shift in expression or body language happens quickly doesn't mean you have to describe it quickly. You could expand the above to something more descriptive. For example:

C1 doubled over cackling maniacally at the scene in front of him. The fires of hell had nothing on the carnage unfolding around him. His stance was relaxed, one knee on a cracked cornerstone. The light flickered around him, illuminating the broken stone church and the satisfied expression on C1's face.

"I thought you said you were going to bail them out," C2 muttered in exasperation.

C1 straightened up, surprised to hear the remark. He turned to regard C2, planting both feet square on the ground.

"I get it. Business before pleasure." His expression a match for C1's look of grim determination, C2 stepped into the fray.

To the reader, it's clear that this all takes place in a few seconds, but examining the scene more closely gives a better picture.

(Of course, I've invented details that likely have nothing to do with your story to make a point, but this is just an example.)

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  • It's amazing how similar this answer is to what's in my head.
    – Jake
    Jun 9, 2015 at 2:32
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This is tricky, and it depends on your genre as well as how you want this character to be perceived by the reader. You could, for example, just describe the emotion: C1 was happy, a bird flew across the sky and C1 became indescribably sad. Weeping he spotted his shoelace and his tears became those of rage. Etc. This would work if you were in the comedy genre or trying to be funny. I think a character like this would be quite good for a farcical piece of writing.

The answer given by Neil Fein is inescapable, in the sense that you will have to take up more time describing things that aren't adequately described yet. It is true that the reader will know that the emotion changed quickly, but if you take a long time describing this, you will lose some of the psychological effect in the reader. The less time it takes to get an idea of the rapid shift, the more rapid it will seem.

Perhaps a quick and easy answer, which is relatively genre-neutral, is to explicitly negate the previous emotion and replace it. So:

C1 doubled over cackling maniacally at the scene in front of him. The fires of hell had nothing on the carnage unfolding around him. "I thought you said you were going to bail them out," C2 muttered in exasperation. C1's cackling suddenly died. He straightened up. His brows lowered in grim determination and he nodded. "I get it. Business before pleasure." As he marched into the fray a bird flew across the sky and his determination melted into indescribable sorrow. He began crying.

So the word 'cackling' is repeated, as is the word 'determination'.

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