First off, thanks to Mary for this post, which inspired me to write my own post about the emotions we give our characters.
I've read very few stories, short or novel-length, where emotions are realistic and make you empathize with the character. Either you've got the super-dramatic stories, where you're surprised the book doesn't come with it's own waterproof jacket to protect it from the tears (of the characters), or else they swing over to the left and the characters are unrealistically mature and level-headed, even in the midst of terrible tragedy.
So, how are we to make our characters have emotions that actually make the reader sympathize with them? Obviously, the old adage 'Write what you know', won't work in situations where you're writing about someone whose whole family has just been killed. Most of us haven't gone through that (I hope!). So, where do we look to find how our character would respond?
I think, first of all, we have to kind of get a feel for the character. Is he usually very quiet and reserved? Or is he constantly in the middle of the action, giving brave speeches and fighting valiantly? Does he say a whole lot in a few words, or is he dramatic and overblown? Even Aragorn wept when Boromir died, and Aragorn is a stern, fairly silent man.
Also, we can be fairly certain that the emotions portrayed in novels and TV shows are unrealistic in the extreme. Take the Little House on the Prairie episodes. I've seen very few that don't make me feel like I've just been spoon fed a whole bottle of over-sweetened syrup. Everything is calculated to manipulate the viewer into sympathizing, but usually I just go, "Oh, good grief! Give me a break! That is so unrealistic!"
In one of the episodes, Laura gives birth to a boy. Not long afterwards, the baby becomes sick, and Doc Baker (one of my favorite characters on the show usually) tries to save him. When the baby dies, Laura becomes angry with the Doc, and the Doc begins to believe that he's of no use and packs his bag to leave Walnut Grove. All the angst and silly overacting is just too much. And then, of course, the Doc is convinced to stay after he saves the life of some other person. Deus ex machina is all well and good at times, but in Little House, it's done just about every time. And another thing is the theme music, which is perfectly fine at the beginning of the episode, but just when it comes to the most 'intense and joyful' moment, that moment when tears of joy come into the character's eyes and they run dramatically (it should be in slow motion to heighten the drama) towards someone else, and the orchestra is playing the variation of the theme music, you just kind of groan like you've eaten too much candy.
I certainly don't want my characters to imitate movie characters.
I think the safest way to do emotions are to kind of think a while about what it would be like if such-and-such happened to you that is happening to so-and-so in your story. Of course, it makes a difference if the character is male or female. A woman is more likely to cry, while a man gives vent to his grief in words or silence perhaps. But that doesn't mean none of your men can cry, or that none of your women can sort of keep it in and shed only a few tears. But you have to make sure that the reader knows how deep the sorrow is through the thoughts of the character. I hate referencing my own work, since it makes me feel as though I'm holding it up as the greatest thing ever, but I will anyways.
I just wrote short story called 'Amira', and it was one of those stories that I like a whole lot. You can read it here. There are spoilers in the next paragraph, just to warn you.
I have told it from the first person point of view, and as much as possible I've tried to keep it from getting sappy.
So, how did I do it? First, I had been mulling over the story in my mind for several days. I know a lot of people work better by putting it in an outline, but I think about things for a long time before I actually start writing it. It was one of those stories that seemed to spring almost fully written from my fingers to the computer screen.
But how do I write the emotions of someone whose husband is dying, whose parents have died (one in a terrible way), and who is about to die herself? I've never experienced any of those things myself, so I basically had to try to experience them through the MC. So there are flashbacks and a lot of her thoughts.
Another thing I was able to draw on was a book I'd read: 'Lords of the Earth'. It was a missionary story about these tribes in Papua New Guinea, I believe, where the women were treated horribly. They were not allowed to participate in the religion of the tribes, and their husbands were basically allowed to just do whatever they wanted to them. There were these temples that a man could run to, and, if he reached one in time, even his enemies would not touch him. But, if a woman tried to escape from her enemies by going there, her own tribesmen would kill her. The suicide rate for women was extremely high because they were so oppressed. So, that gave me a good starting place as well.
You can well imagine that in the place where 'Amira' is set, female suicide is pretty high. Who would want their husband to die first in a place like that?
Bother, I feel like I'm not being very clear here. I hope this isn't a waste of my time and yours, because I wonder if I've actually said anything that's worth reading, or if it's basically been an unintelligible post. If it has been, then I ask pardon in advance.
So, basically, we're back to the starting point, which is: make your characters' emotions realistic. Try to get into their shoes and see how they (or most anybody, really) would respond to something. It's often the character's thoughts, not their words aloud, that speak the most about what they are feeling at the moment. This is all the easier if writing in first person, but there are difficulties with that POV as well. Anyways, hope this helped. The next post will be about something easier for me to write about: the Joy Light.