Friday, September 24, 2010

Emotional Resonance

Emotional resonance seems a very subjective term to me. Like so many of the phrases you might see on a rejection slip. "Your characters lack emotional resonance". But what does it mean?

Resonance. Well the Free Dictionary gives a few definitions, I guess the most relevant might be: Richness or significance, especially in evoking an association or strong emotion.

If I am guessing correctly - and honestly I don't even know if the people who use this term really define it, even for themselves - emotional resonance is about evoking within the reader the emotions you are trying to portray in the work. If a character is said to lack emotional resonance, then my understanding is something along the lines that this character does not evoke an emotion in the reader.

Now I am pretty sure that this term is also used when people object to a character, and also when the reader does not buy the reactions that a character might have - you might say when the suspension of disbelief is broken. This seems to be a different issue, but it gets lumped into the same basket.

Of course, beyond the definition and what exactly people are trying to say is the reason for the lack of emotional resonance. The characterisation may just be poorly thought out or executed, or perhaps there is a lack of consistency that is jarring. Perhaps the emotional reactions of the character do not gel in some situations, and this breaks the reader-writer connection.

Even though all of this could be true, I think more often than not the reason is that the reader (or editor is they happen to be one), just don't like that character. They don't 'get' them. The things that particular character experience and strive for, their emotional reactions, do not echo with any level of personal experience in the reader. If that is the case, then no amount of crafting will make that reader like the work - no matter how good the characterisation or how relevant it is to the story.

I don't know. Help me out. What do people mean by 'emotional resonance'?


Brendan said...

When your characters get upset they should vibrate.

You can let the reader know you are doing this by having them stammer all the time, although it you don't want to overdo it(a rookie mistake).

This: "I-I-I don't understa-a-a-and. Wha-ah-ah-ah!" Sheila emotionally resonated.

Not this: "I-I-I nee-e-ed to-o-o ge-e-e-t o-o-ff th-th-th-is tr-ac-tor!" Shila stuttered.

MataPam said...

I think you understand what it means. Getting there is another thing.

I think the best way is to manage to bring in equivalencies, things in peoples lives that evoke strong emotional memories.

So, what things, what experiences, do most people have? Love, hate, grief. Getting chewed out by the Boss. For guys it might be the realization that they really ndo need to shave.

I think the best example I can give is one that failed for me. ois Bujold, in Spirit Ring, portrayed the young female protagonists as a boy crazy teenager. I never was one such, and had only observed such behavior with incomprehending contempt and utter disbelief at how stupid girls could be.

So this character and I didn't click. At all.

But prehaps that's part of the way to go. Fit Characters into "known slots" and the readers will understand them. "Yes, I was once a scrawney boy the girls never noticed" "Yep, Smart Girl who can't get a date. Been there, done that." "Yes, I wanted to be a hero and got the snot beat out of me." "Well, at least my Boss didn't have Goons to take me out and beat me, he merely flayed me with his tongue."

I guess this is a bit like "Have him save a kitten." get that first spark of identity going, and go from there.

Synova said...

I think that what people mean is "sympathy".

Except that when you use the word "sympathy" or "sympathetic" in relationship to characters people tend not to understand what you meant.

They think you mean "feeling sorry for them."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

It does help. If it's hard for you to get it in OZ, let me know, I'll send it.

The key to "ressonating" is that you get to BE the character -- to feel what they feel, to see what they see -- it's what distinguishes us from movie makers who can only SHOW the character from the outside as it were. Swain explains how to do the trick.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

The key to this, which Synova and Pam are sort of groping for but on a different level is the Tennyson quote "A touch of nature makes the whole world kin." BUT this doesn't mean you drag your character through cliche situations which can get REALLY boring -- at least mine can. I can't seem to make confrontation with the boss thrilling. In fact I'm having trouble writing a chapter that's sort of like that with stakes raised -- but that we can identify with the way the character reacts to HIS/HER situation. Hands clench. Sweat stings the eyes. Heart beats. The dignified male, confronted with utter terror has a childish accident (first Shakespeare book. Yes, it surprised me I was so deep in the character. Most adults haven't had that happen, but most adults haven't been terrified by ultimate evil. However, they remember that happening when they were scared as kids. Or it happening to someone they were close with it. The emotion resonates, even if the encounter with the "hunter" doesn't.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, what Pam says is absolutely correct for SECONDARY characters. You don't want to draw all your characters up to the same level. There is a similar technique (I'm learning) in painting. The focal point is more vivid and precise and more fully realized. Same thing here. Only instead of blurring the lines on the "faces in the crowd" you go for the "slotted cliche" because people then KNOW where they belong and see the details you didn't put in. Mind you, in a series you might fill in some of these later. Take Conan Lung in my shifter's series. In first book I slotted him as "Dumb Asian-ancestry teen trying to reconnect with heritage he never knew." It works, for that book. But as the series goes on, he's acquiring unique and er... interesting twists. Like, having grown up in TN (even as son of immigrants) he wants to be a Country music star. And he's not half bad. But that's for later. If I'd done that in the first book it would have been too much too soon.
Be careful with cliches. They can be a wonderful too, but you need to know how to paint with them, or you can end up bland. At the other end of the spectrum is a mishmash no one understands, without a focal point to guide the eye.

Ben Godby said...

Strangely, I find characters to be the most emotionally resonant when they are simple. Complex emotions, which are obviously the ones we feel in real life, are usually too complex to make any impact on the page. I just finished "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell, and the main character's emotional turmoil, which is deep-seated in spiritual belief and sexual abuse, was simply too heavy and deep, and portrayed as far too "buried," for me to actually click with the character. On the other hand, the simple enthusiasm of the protagonist of "Starship Troopers" got me jiving with Heinlein's political philosophy, despite the fact that it is basically antithetical to the beliefs I normal espouse.

Simplicity! It'll make me you feel complex.


Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I TRULY hate to say this, but if you think the character in Starship Troopers (or his arc) was simple or all about enthusiasm, you MUST re-read it.

Chris McMahon said...

Bendan, that was a classic! Pehaps the really hot books cold come with batteries & hum a little on the shelf?:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. Some good ideas there. I think trying to create that emotional connection is one of the trickiest things for a writer to do well.

You either stay in the middle ground, which for me can kind of stunt the flavour of the character, or follow your intial conception - which will be more unique, but likely to include your own quirks, which others may not get.

Sometimes I think when a writer gets going off the cuff, they can bring a real freshness into a character. If they are lucky enough to get this in front of an editor who reponds to the events and emotions in that characters life, things can seen almost too easy. Other times you can bent over backward to create a character that works and it leaves editors/readers underwhelmed.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Synova. I think a lot of these terms are kind of like birds circling around the same thing. Getting it right is a bit scary.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. I think you are talking about direct writing? Using physical reactions to convey sensations and emotions rather than simply saying 'she felt'? Kind of like an extensin of Show Vs Tell.

For me that more of a craft issue, and I know how to do that (or at least know what I SHOULD be doing). It's choosing the characters emotional lanscape and making sure all the decisions and emotions gel, that I think is more my issue.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. Just read your two other posts! Some interesting points there. Interesting distinction between minor and major characters in the way you handle them.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Ben. I think this has been some of my issue. I have actually thought too much about my characters and made them feel too deeply. Most people do not gel with that, particularly off the mark. Maybe with emotions it is a bit like scenery - just a few touches are best, then let the reader fill in the blanks! Maybe the reader can create the best emotional resonance themselves:)