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How important are the author's mood and emotions while writing a story or describing a scene?

For example, while writing an erotic scene, is it important for the author to feel the same way as they expect the readers to feel when describing the scene?

Or for another example, should the author also feel happy, sad, etc. to match the feeling of the character and get the correct words in?

  • 4
    Slightly related, but not a direct answer to the question. An author's mood is important, but not that the author's mood matches the character's situation. One example is that Stephanie Meyers was writing a retelling of Twilight through Edward's POV. One of the manuscripts given to a test reader was leaked. She was so upset by this that she was completely unwilling to complete the book. She stated that she would have just killed everyone off. Now, while you could argue that the book would have then made a much better story, it would not have been the book she was trying to write. – Michael Richardson Jul 19 at 14:22
  • Further reading on the story @MichaelRichardson refers to. – Rand al'Thor Jul 19 at 20:15
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It is not important, unnecessary, and in fact utterly impossible. You need to put yourself in the character's shoes, imagine how he feels, write that, try to evoke emotions in the reader. It helps if you have ever in your life experienced something similar, so you have a reference point.

But writing in that moment? If your character is in excruciating pain, does it make sense to cause yourself excruciating pain, and then try to write? Quite aside from the fact that this would be unhealthy in the extreme, writing well while you are experiencing excruciating pain would be nigh impossible.

The same is true of other strong emotions, and even not so strong ones. If you've ever been worried, you know it's hard to focus on anything, least of all writing, while you're worried. It's when you're calm and focused that you can write about your character's concern.

Writing is about imagination. It isn't and cannot be about making yourself physically go through what your character is going through. For one thing, that would be extremely limiting.

  • I was going to answer differently…, but you convinced me 100% with the pain example. – wetcircuit Jul 19 at 10:54
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    On the other hand, feel free to make notes of how some things feel for later use. Taking the pain example, if you ever accidentaly cut yourself, after bandaging the wound, take notes about how it felt so you can later extrapolate to what could possibly feel like to be stabbed. Start a 'feelings' diary and every time you get angry write down (afterwards) how it felt and why you felt that. Anger doesn't always manifest the same way, nor do other feelings. It's also a great way of developing a greater awareness of your own feelings and state of mind. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jul 19 at 11:16
5

I "roleplay" as my characters.

It's not quite the same as you are asking, but it does help me get to what a character wants (their desire vs their need) and how they see their own path to get there. It helps me imagine what their limits would be when sharing their feelings with other characters.

My issue with feeling what my character feels times 11 is that I usually have 2 or more characters in a scene who have different motives, potentially different emotional states, and they aren't always revealing their emotions honestly. My scene will lean sympathy towards the character who has the most stakes at that moment, but I'm generally trying to get the reader to see multiple sides to an issue through multiple characters.

This will be different depending on your style, POV, and genre. Some characters and stories are more about the internal state than others.

Change of emotions is narratively stronger than conveying a single emotion.

I also try to "zoom in" on the moment when their emotional state changes, the moment Robert McKee calls a character's turn:

Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? Love? Truth? What? How is that value charged at the top of the scene? Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note. Next turn to the close of the scene and ask, Where is this value now? Positive? Negative? Both? Make a note and compare. If the answer you write down at the end of the scene is the same note you made at the opening, you now have another important question to ask: Why is this scene in my script?

From experience (and experimenting) I agree with McKee: the change of emotional state is more powerful to the reader than descriptions of extreme empathy.

Every character has some emotional reaction when they change one of their values, but those emotions aren't always the true story. I often have a character act impulsively and deal with the emotional fallout later (younger characters especially). Emotions serve a different narrative role when they trail actions. A character struggles with what they've done, as opposed to putting all the emotions first as a lead in to their (re)actions.

I find in real life people have all kinds of emotions completely disconnected from their actions, and I can put my characters on a spectrum of having a lot of disconnected emotions that complicate their decision-making vs characters who don't allow their emotional state to influence their actions at all. In stories, our MCs don't have full autonomy, they are our puppets and they do what the plot demands, they are far more active and reactive than real life. "Honest" emotions can get in the way – but again, it probably has more to do with your genre. A "finding yourself" novel/memoir is probably all about vicariously indulging in the MC's internal emotions.

While all characters are somewhat autobiographical, I'm writing fiction, not an autobiography

In my opinion, an author needs healthy emotional separation from the characters so she understands when to allow the MCs to be unsympathetic, make bad choices, get themselves in trouble, and unconsciously be rude and harmful to other characters.

If every character is just an avatar for my own emotional state it's a lot harder for me to stop them from becoming Mary Sues designed to flatter me, and all secondary characters acting just to enable the Mary Sue moments. Of course in an erotic novel, the MC might just be a Mary Sue, and all secondary characters really do exist just to flatter his fantasy. YMMV.

I'd rather write characters who act like themselves.

4

For example, while writing an erotic scene, is it important for the author to feel the same way as they expect the readers to feel when describing the scene?

For some subjective feelings or emotions, I'd say its a good gauge for the first draft.

If you think you are writing an erotic scene and your first draft of it doesn't seem erotic to you at all, then you are probably on the wrong track for an erotic scene.

The same goes for a romantic scene; if you don't find it romantic (on first draft) then your readers likely won't either.

(I will go into erotica and romance more below.)

The same goes for humor. If you write a joke even you don't find humorous on the first draft, it is unlikely to make others laugh.

The same goes for "reveal" scenes of awe or surprise. Capturing these kinds of emotions is tricky, if your first draft doesn't capture it even for you, then you probably haven't captured it for readers, either.

I emphasize first draft because some scenes lose their power, slowly or quickly, when re-read and edited and re-read again, for 3 edits or 30 edits or however many you do. For this reason you also need to be wary of an endless rewrite trap, where something seems exciting at first, but after seven edits no longer seems exciting so you rewrite it, and after seven edits that no longer seems exciting so you rewrite it, ad infinitum. This doesn't mean you cannot edit something, or cut it or find better words or sentence structure. But for scenes like these, do be aware of the phenomenon and try to stick to the original blueprint of the scene that made you feel something.

On romantic/erotic scenes in particular: Your story may call for such scenes that are not in your own wheelhouse, that you don't find particularly romantic/erotic. This may be true for scenes between characters not of your own orientation, or using tools (bondage, pain, costumes) or playing roles (rape, slave) that turn you off.

One approach to this dilemma is translation. The idea is to write a similar romantic/erotic scene you do find erotic, between characters with similar personalities to your characters but matching your own orientation and proclivities. Whatever actually does feel romantic to you, or erotic to you, so you can bring those feelings to the prose. Then follow that same blueprint for your actual characters.

Translation operates on the assumption that ultimately the feelings of romance, love, lust, sexual excitement and orgasm may vary in intensity but are pretty much the same for everyone. It is just the "ways and means" that change from person to person, by which I include the traits of the person that attracts them, and also include any props, setting or language they find necessary to achieve their preferred altered state.

2

I've heard of Method Acting.
But never Method Writing.

There are two approaches to portraying a character on film or stage.

Method Acting, where the actor gets into character by living like the character, duplicating emotions of the character, or otherwise emotionally identifying with the character. There are multiple approaches and techniques here and you can do this method without extreme measures (though some do take extreme measures).

Classical Acting, which some refer to as "the Shakespearean Style" or "Surface Acting."

More focused on control and precision in performance, classical actors are action-oriented, rather than emotion-oriented, the latter being the goal of method actors...a key difference between method acting and classical acting is that classical actors bring to life their character by combining their own interpretation with a meticulously crafted script. Where method acting can allow for quite a bit of improvisation, classical acting demands a degree of exactness, which is why they always memorize all of their lines. In other words, you are much less likely to want to deviate from the script when classical acting is called for.

As you get into your characters in order to write them, you might take one of these approaches, or a combination. There is a difference between feeling what your character is feeling and understanding what your character is feeling.

I'm the latter. I do not feel my character's emotions for the most part, but I have empathy. Imagine a close friend or family member who tells you about her/his life. You might feel sad or angry about something she says, but you don't feel like she feels. You might care deeply about him but you don't respond to his story by trying to duplicate it in your own experience, or responding like he does to it.

Regardless of your technique, you want your reader to be carried away by the story. Some will indeed identify with certain characters, to the point of feeling what they're feeling. Others will cosplay or write fan fiction. But most will respond emotionally to the material, not as if they were a character exactly. All of those responses are fine and good.

The question for you is, what do you need to achieve these effects? If you need to do "Method Writing" then do it. I think most writers do not use that technique but that doesn't mean it's not right for you. Please don't feel you have to do it though. It's never a requirement for good writing. See what your output is and, if it's not what you're going for, try a different method and see what happens.

  • There are way more than these two approaches... Look up "Stanislavski versus the monopolylogue and emotional bleeding" for a great analysis of why method acting in particular is overvalued and based on broken wrong science. – Weckar E. Jul 19 at 20:11
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Not when writing them no, I only really do good writing, regardless of content, when I'm at least slightly depressed and to a point the worse I feel the better content I write. When reading back a passage it is very important that it have the emotional impact you're looking to create for your audience.

  • I am similar: the more sleep deprived I am the better I write. – Weckar E. Jul 19 at 20:15
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No and yes.

No, you don't need to feel your character's emotions to be able to write scenes that involve them. It's the same in real life -- if a friend comes to you feeling extremely upset about his dog dying, then making yourself feel the same sort of distress is an incredibly ineffective way of helping him. You'll just end up miserable together.

What you need is related, but different. You want to have compassion for his situation and emotions, which means you understand them (more than superficially) and connect to how he's feeling without being consumed by it yourself. Then you can offer the support of someone who is outside of the situation, not drowning in it. (You can also be outside without being compassionate, and tell him to just get over it or whatever, but that isn't going to help.)

It's the same when writing your characters. Writing about a homicidal maniac's anger is not going to go better if you're pissed off. But it also isn't going to work if you can't relate to why that person, in that situation, would be angry.

On the other hand, when revising your work, you do want your writing to evoke in you some degree of the emotion you're going for. Or at least, get to where you can viscerally feel how your character would be reacting with that emotion. You can't expect your readers to feel something that you don't. (But again, your readers don't need to feel the killer's anger either, they just need to understand and relate to it at some level.)

As @amadeus points out, though, it's ok if you lose that feeling by the 364th rereading.

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