emotional wisdom

As a writer I mostly focus on telling the best story I can. What are the story elements, and how can I better my craft to better express them, etc. But there’s a part of writing I often overlook – something that cannot be taught, but that is essential to writing something compelling, memorable, moving.

The best writers have emotional wisdom.

It’s there in every story, at a basic level. To have a character react a certain way to events you have to understand the transition of emotions. In its most basic form, this would be a kind of equation: heroine + getting fired = desperate heroine. The emotion is a direct and obvious sum of events.

There’s a more sophisticated level of emotion where, say, a boy’s best friend tells him he’s dying of cancer, and the boy’s first reaction is to laugh. In the glaring lack between cause and reaction, there’s something almost unbearably human.

Then there’s the kind of emotional intelligence that UNDERSTANDS MY SOUL BETTER THAN I DO. Ahem. This is the part of writing that’s alchemical. It’s an understanding that comes from the individual brain of this one person, who has experienced and thought and drawn conclusions. And then applied what they know to their characters.

My favourite writer of Harry Potter fanfic is Maya (who’s published now as Sarah Rees Brennan). What sets her fics apart, for me, is the charming, resounding emotional truthfulness of her characters. One passage I particularly love is this:

Harry looked over at him and saw him trying to think his way out of this, jaw sharp and tight with concentration. The expression was so familiar it sent a fierce irrational pang through Harry, not sadness but the furious feeling that he was being robbed. He knew it was stupid and terrible of him to feel such a right to Malfoy, as if just because he had him memorised that meant he could keep him.

She recently posted some links on her tumblr to posts where she talks about girls being in competition with each other. Right at the end of the list, almost like a throwaway comment, she wrote: And certainly no lady is in competition for a dude, because dudes (like ladies) are not winnable objects but people who make their own decisions.

I read it and a light bulb went off in my chest (whoever first depicted the light bulb above the head was wrong; it’s so much more visceral than that). Firstly it pinged because it feels true. But lots of things are true, so that in itself isn’t such a big deal, maybe. I think it’s the combination of true and startling. Something true that I hadn’t articulated to myself before. Reading it I actually experienced my selfhood and the selfhood of my husband.

I also began to realise that the wisdom I love so much in her work stems from this one idea – people belong to themselves. In the fic I quoted from above, Harry is irresistibly gorgeous (and hates it), but Draco seems to be immune to him. When he accidentally discovers that Draco is actually doing his best to fight the attraction, Harry says to him, “I don’t care. I want you too much to care.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a classic romance line. That’s the alpha who finally has his object of desire within his sights, and whose passion has slipped free of his control. It’s great. Lots of zing.

But then Maya does this amazing thing. Draco leaves so that they can both cool off, and Harry thinks. And he realises that it’s not okay for him to use the magical attraction against Draco, if it’s not what Draco wants. He realises that it’s not okay for him to say, “I don’t care.”

It goes against everything that alpha moment has taught me to expect as a reader, and the wisdom in it touches me.

This is another perfect example of what I’m talking about:

Just because having Malfoy touch him seemed necessary as air didn’t mean it was: it didn’t mean that Harry could demand to have him as a right.

I think probably this aspect of writing isn’t talked about so often because it really isn’t something you can teach. It’s the part of writing where writers are thinkers, and you bring something of yourself to the table. Your characters aren’t standing between you and your reader; you are imparting direct wisdom. It’s like being bold enough to say, “I know something worth saying.”

It makes me realise all over again how rarely we really stop and think, and decide what we believe, and look for wisdom inside what we know.

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About anna cowan

I look around, and here I am - housewife and aspiring romance novelist. This seems unexpected.
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3 Responses to emotional wisdom

  1. robena grant says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Anna. Very thought invoking. I love to read authors who have emotional wisdom. I think perhaps being unafraid to reveal their true self, combined with knowledge, acceptance, and comfort with their self, is what makes for that truth on the page.

  2. Thought provoking. That feeling that you speak of where the words ‘pinged’ – I think of that as truth resonating.That’s the core of my blog. Because I think truth can be found everywhere. I love when I resonate with a statement in a romance novel or the lyric in a song.

    • anna cowan says:

      it’s such an odd thing, the way truth resonates. It can be something you’ve heard over and over, or something that seems entirely ordinary to other people. I wonder if it’s the subconscious shuffling about, so that everything’s aligned for this one piece of information to slot in, and the feeling of a perfect fit gives us a tingle.

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