Writing Extreme Emotions by Karen Duvall

Posted on Jan 8, 2013 by   11 Comments | Posted in Blog · Uncategorized

I don’t know about you, but I have not experienced first hand most of the tragedies I put my characters through. I haven’t watched someone get murdered, or seen my life flash before my eyes, or been chased by demons and gargoyles. My life is a bit more subtle (aka boring). So then how does an author write about the emotions brought on by these experiences without having gone through them herself?

You could say you’ve watched similar things happen to actors on television or in movies and that’s what inspires you. Or you could say a friend or family member had a similar experience and told you what it was like. Or maybe you read a nonfiction book or article from the point of view of someone who endured similar tragedies.

These are okay sources if they inspire you and get you to crank up your imagination. In fact, I have an awesome nonfiction book called LEAD POISONING that does a pretty darn good job of recounting the experiences of gunshot victims. I got it from Paladin Press, a terrific resource for this kind of information. http://www.paladin-press.com/

I’m sure you already know that exaggeration is key to writing believable fiction. I don’t mean over-the-top plots and purple prose, but sometimes you have to push the envelope just to get the right information across to the reader, whether it be emotion, physical description or action. That being said, a little goes a long way, so everything you write must pack one hell of a punch.

Sun Storm Collage created by Karen

I’m not pushing hyperbole, but I am emphasizing the importance of making your words count. In everything. I could go on for pages about this, and I’ll add to this in future blog posts, but for now let’s focus on the bugaboo writers tend to pull out their hair over. Emotions.


Think about anything, and I mean anything, that has had a powerful emotional impact on you and you can use it as a launching pad for any emotion you need your character to express.

Of course you’ll have to embellish it for the purpose of your scene. For example, consider the most frightening experience you’ve ever had. Even if it was a call from the IRS telling you you’re about to be audited. Such shocking news would likely send an icy ball of fear hurtling to the pit of your stomach. You don’t have to face an evil sorcerer, ax murderer or a vampire to know fear. You just have to compound what you already know with intensity. The point is to use your personal storehouse of bona fide emotions as a building block to create authentic reactions for your characters.

But here’s the thing. There are different levels of feelings we derive from our emotions. The IRS phone call elicits fear related to anxiety and dread. Fear for our lives is on a whole other level associated with horror, terror, panic, and hysteria. Escalating nervousness to terror is no easy task, so you have to borrow from another emotional experience to balance the playing field.

Say what? How can a different emotion be in the same ballpark as the one you’re trying to convey? When it comes to visceral reactions, there are plenty of physical similarities to draw from.

Physical pain and emotional grief are heavy hitters. Most of us have experienced these to some degree. That intensity is what you need to carry through to your characters in a way that will create a tragic experience for the reader to share. You’ll have to put your imagination into overdrive, and if you build on these base feelings, you may be surprised at how effective it can be.

Everyone feels. Whether the character is a six-year-old child or a fifty-year-old hardened criminal, these individuals are human beings. And for the benefit of the reader, the characters need to emotionally react to the events around them, even if it’s only expressed internally. A character who denies feeling anything is feeling it enough to think denial is the best way to handle it. That’s a Catch 22, wouldn’t you say?

Be prepared to venture into some dark places inside your head. If you want to create realism in your fiction, this is a sacrifice you’ll need to make for your art. You can do it!

Feel free to share an intense emotional experience in a comment. It can be anything you think you could derive an emotional reaction from to enhance an experience for your character.

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BIO:  Karen Duvall lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and four incredibly spoiled pets. She’s an award winning author published with Harlequin Luna and is currently working on a new contemporary fantasy series.


BLURB:  After the biggest solar flares in history nearly destroy the planet, Sarah Daggot becomes a Kinetic, endowed by her exposure to extreme radiation with the power to forecast sun storms. And she’s not the only one. Other Kinetics possess different kinetic abilities, and Sarah believes they’re destined to join forces and halt the final onslaught of the sun… before the world ends.

11 Responses to "Writing Extreme Emotions by Karen Duvall"

  1. Comment by Cheryl St.John
    January 8, 2013 2:54 pm

    Great article and spot on.

  2. Comment by Karen Duvall
    January 8, 2013 5:33 pm

    Thanks, Cheryl. 🙂

  3. Comment by Shay Fabbro
    January 8, 2013 5:55 pm

    Very good article! My husband and I almost divorced this last summer. It was the most gut and heart-wrenching experience of my life thus far. I go back to those days quite a bit when writing, especially if two lovers have to separate (not necessarily because they don’t get along).

  4. Comment by Karen Duvall
    January 8, 2013 6:47 pm

    Shay, I’m so sorry to hear that, but it’s good that you found a way to make lemonade out of a very sour lemon. Good luck to you! 🙂

  5. Comment by Judith Ashley
    January 8, 2013 6:49 pm

    Hi Karen,

    I find writing emotions to be a balancing act – too much in the wrong place is as bad as too much in the right place.

    But you are 100% correct that we have it in us to find those emotions and their visceral reactions and pull them out of ourselves and layer them into our stories.

    Thanks for a great article.

  6. Comment by Karen Duvall
    January 8, 2013 8:02 pm

    Yep, Judith, I agree. So much about writing is balance in general. And then there’s the challenge of believability, which is a whole new ballgame. But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it, right? 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Comment by Barbara Rae Robinson
    January 9, 2013 3:02 am

    Last September when I was alone in the house at night, and asleep, the power went off. I didn’t wake up until the power came back on. And the noises started. My printer in the next room always turns on when the power resumes. And fans and refrigerator and the microwave beeps. I woke from a sound sleep and was positive someone was in the house and coming toward the bedroom. I was terrified. Paralyzed with fear. It took me a couple of minutes to realize what had happened and why I was so scared. I will be using that feeling in my books!

  8. Comment by Karen Duvall
    January 9, 2013 3:32 am

    Barbara, I know it must have been a horrible feeling, but I’m jealous! I could use one of those. I’m sure it will serve you well.

  9. Comment by Diana Mcc.
    January 9, 2013 8:26 pm

    Many, many moons ago, I was attending college part-time and my husband was working late. I picked up my 4 yr old and went home to find a man walking out of my house. He said he was from the gas company checking the furnace in the house. I didn’t confront him because I had my daughter with me. He went out I went in, locked the door and called the cops. Needless to say, he had broken in the back window and stolen some money and other items. I draw on that experience now and again. Great blog!

  10. Comment by Karen Duvall
    January 9, 2013 8:35 pm

    OMG, Diana, how scary! Yeah, you can use that emotion and embellish it. It’s a good one, though I’m sorry this happened to you. 🙁

  11. Comment by larissa
    January 21, 2013 6:22 pm

    Not the most heart-stopping experience I’ve ever had, but I do have a kind of funny one that was terrifying at the time and is now in my book. I was in Iceland researching my futuristic/10th century time travel romance. I was hiking alone above a small town, in a place where I can only guess a large number of birds had their nests. They began to chase me, just a bit at first, then getting really close to my head and I ran. It was truly frightening and very much usable too.


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