How the characters react color how the readers understand the situation. This means that the characters reactions often serve as emotional cues for the readers. It does not mean that readers automatically feel the way that the characters feel, or that you cannot intentionally set up dissonant situations. As such, understanding how emotional cues do and do not work can be a valuable tool for setting tone and creating tension.

Crafting Emotional Cues

The characters’ moods is an important part of the overall tone of the scene.

A cocky hero in an action movie usually signifies that there’s about to be a daring escape. A cocky hero in a horror movie usually signifies that someone’s about to be messily dismembered. If the character’s mood plays into the overall tone, they build off of each other. On the other hand, intentionally playing up the dissonance between the character’s mood and the tone of the scene can create tension and to clue in readers that something is amiss.

How readers respond to character emotions is tempered by how other characters react.

A character laughing hysterically sends a different message when everyone around her is sobbing. The overall mood of the cast can be used to create a benchmark for non-standard emotional reactions, and can help readers figure out how to understand the story.

Sympathy plays a role.

Ha. This is the best funeral I’ve been to all week.

Whether a character is sympathetic isn’t just about how likeable they are. It’s about whether or not the reader is intended to empathize with them. If a character’s emotions are usually in line with how readers feel, readers are apt to take cues from them. If the character’s feelings have been intentionally dissonant—i.e. Jane is a terrible person and she loves nothing more than a good funeral—readers are less likely take the character’s reaction as a direct cue.

Readers pick up more on the general mood than the actual actions.

The funniest parts of the story are rarely the parts where the characters laugh. The saddest parts are rarely the parts where they cry. Building up a strong mood through details and allowing the characters to react in their own way conveys emotional cues better than heavy handed emotional tells.

Common Issues That Arise from Poor Attention to Cues

1. Apathy

When the main characters don’t care about their own plotlines, it greatly weakens the reader’s willingness to invest in the story. A common indicator is that the words “he/she/they didn’t care,” come up in the narration often, or details are presented and then dismissed as unimportant. This provokes two reader reactions: 1. “If it’s not important, why are you telling me this?” and 2. “If Alice doesn’t care, why on earth would you expect me to care?”

The plot thickens.

Another way that apathy comes through is when the main plot is treated as mildly interesting background events—similar to when driving questions are treated as matters of idle curiosity. The plot can emerge out of background events. But when the main plot fades into the background, it usually means that the characters aren’t actively pursuing it, which lowers the stakes.

It’s a tough sell to expect readers to be more invested in the story than the characters are. If the people closest to the plot are uninterested, unless you are intentionally cultivating a sense of disconnect, this generally sends a signal to the readers that they aren’t interested because the plot isn’t interesting.

2. Lack of danger

When the characters act as if they aren’t at risk, that undercuts the threat level of the villain. This often comes out in how the characters react under fire. If they’re strolling across the battle field or trading witty banter in the middle of combat, it suggests that they don’t feel threatened. “Calm under fire” may be a legitimate, well used trait if it shows up in one or two characters who have lots of experience in dangerous situations. However, when applied to more than a few characters or when attached to the main character, it’s something to be careful of, because it’s difficult for readers to be afraid when the hero acts like the situation is in the bag (especially if it always is).

Lack of danger also comes across in the way that they talk about and act towards the villain—if a majority of the cast does not fear or respect the villain, it signals the reader that this is because the villain is not deserving of fear and respect. How characters regard one another is a form of indirect characterization and readers pick up on it, often more so than how the narrator describes the character directly.

There’s some overlap with apathy as well. When characters ignore the plot, that implies that the plot can be ignored without negative consequences. Some examples:

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    Lucy can wait. Algebra is serious business.

    The monster disappears for half the book while Lucy and Alice deal with their relationship problems.

  • The monster kidnaps Lucy. Alice decides that she’s going to finish her math homework before chasing it down.
  • The monster kidnaps Lucy. Alice decides to address a different, less urgent subplot before going after her. This subplot may or may not aid Alice’s rescue attempt later, but the first thing that the reader sees is Alice prioritizing the subplot over the main plot.
  • The monster strikes. Instead of pursuing it, Alice and Lucy go about their lives while passively waiting for it to return.

3. Poorly Calibrated Characters

This happens when a character is treated as sympathetic, but their reactions are almost always inappropriate to the situation. At best, they begin to seem emotionally unstable and like they aren’t well socially calibrated. At worst, they begin to look insensitive or out of touch with the situation.

Not all characters have to be well calibrated. Inappropriate emotional reactions may be a good way of showing that a character is legitimately awkward, bad at reading social situations, or blatantly unconcerned with the feelings of others. However, if the character is supposed to be a smooth operator, it may pay to go back and make sure that their reactions align with the scenario.This tends to be the biggest issue for “smooth” characters who make glib or witty comments–or romantic advances, heavens help us all–even when the mood is decidedly solemn (In an earlier post, I mentioned problem-characters trading witicisms at a funeral. These are those guys).

For well calibrated characters, consider where your characters are, what the mood of the scene is, how your character actually feels, and how they would present their emotions (appropriate or otherwise)  to keep everyone else from running for the hills.