Monday, April 20, 2015

The Feels. Do we want them? How do we get them?

So...the other day my friend Irene posted to Facebook that she was reading the 4th book in a series by an author we both really like. That motivated me to get my but in gear and read the same book - I'd been saving it for a special occasion, and a Hawaiian vacation seemed special enough.

Loved the book. Hard.

(Jump HERE to see the book's Amazon link. I don't mean to be coy, but I blog about this author a lot, and there should be a limit to the fangirl action, you know?)

(Okay, fine. It's Jackdaw by KJ Charles. Fantastic story. Go read it. Seriously.)

At any rate, after I finished the book (for the 2nd time) I messaged Irene to ask what she thought. She loved it as much as I did, because unlike the other books in the series, this one was all about The Feels. A while later she dropped a different author's name, saying how much she admired her ability to write The Feels.

Those words again.

The Feels

Now, I haven't been living in a box, so I've seen people use the phrase before, but I'd never really connected it to my own writing. Should I try and write The Feels? What does that mean, exactly? And how would I go about doing it?

The best way to understand something is to start with an accurate definition. I went to Urban Dictionary, however had trouble finding something short AND grammatically correct AND F-bomb-free.

Not that there's anything wrong with that...exactly...

Then I found, where there was both a definition and some information about the origin of the term. Check out the link if you want to feel like an expert on The Feels. For the rest of you, here's their definition:

“Feels” is a shorthand for the word “feelings” that is used to describe an intense emotional response, such as sadness, excitement or awe. The term is also commonly associated with the phrase “right in the feels,” which indicates that something has deeply affected the speaker.

Intense emotional response. That's what I want for my readers, maybe not on every page, but often enough to keep them turning those pages. Assuming my characters are more perceptive than poor Sherlock up there, how do I communicate their emotional response to any given situation?

After reading through a few blog posts (links below), I came up with six basic guidelines for adding emotional depth to your fiction.

1. Show, don't tell.

Every writer, everywhere has been told to 'show, don't tell' at one point or another. But how do you do that? It's not easy, or it wouldn't be something every one of us needs to be reminded of. As an example - and making use of Mr. Ackles, above - it's the difference between saying,

"He got all excited and started playing air guitar."


"He high kicked and grabbed his own damned leg, strumming his thigh like a guitar and shouting out the lyrics of some rock song."

The first sentence tells you he's excited, the second one communicates his emotion through word choice and detail. Giving your character physical cues that illustrate what's going on inside their head is much more powerful than baldly stating what they feel. T
he Emotion Thesaurus is great for this, providing a lists of behaviors associated with a host of different mental states.

You can and should amplify a character's emotions with visceral responses, with cues like a racing heartbeat or a twist in the pit of their belly, and you can use the choreography of the scene to provide clues to what they're feeling. A character who spends an entire conversation folded in a ball at the far end of the couch is giving a much different message than one who is straddling her love interest's lap.

You need to really know your characters, because the same situation can produce different responses in different people and you want to capture each character's unique truth. You also need to be willing to get down and dirty with your own feelings...but we'll get into that more in #3.

2. Give the reader something they can relate to.

There aint' nothing sadder than a bummed-out baby.

Look at that kid's face. You don't even need to know the cause to see his little heart breaking. Almost everyone's got some experience with babies, and as a story element, they're something most readers can relate to. I'm not saying every book needs a baby, but even the oddest, least-human character needs some aspect the reader can grab onto and say, "yeah, I know that."

If the reader connects with your main character in chapter one, they'll be sobbing or screaming or tearing their hair out when they get to the climax of the story. Readers are pretty forgiving, and will add their own layers to the information the writer gives them, but there needs to be a foundation of believability for them to work with.

Establishing a reader connection can make your antagonist more powerful, too. Not too many writers can get away with creating a Sauron. Most of us need to construct bad guys who have a little bit of good to offset all the evil, or whose motivations - selfishness, greed, addiction - can be understood by the reader.

I may not be telepathic, but I do know what it feels like to be the odd one out, to be the one who doesn't quite fit. So by the end of the first chapter of Dead Until Dark, I was pretty sure Sookie Stackhouse was someone I could be friends with, someone who would understand my own feelings of alienation, because she'd been there and done that. I rode that feeling of connection all the way through thirteen books and quite a few seasons of the television show.

Charlaine Harris won my loyalty by her ability to consistently get at honest emotional truths (and Eric Northman). In order to do that, she had to be willing to go there first.

 3. Open yourself up.

Basically, if you're not feeling it, your readers won't, either. 

I've heard writers say their best scenes are the ones where they made themselves cry, and there's something beautiful about that. To take your character into their blackest moments by digging into the time you hit rock bottom takes a fair amount of courage. Readers know what bad feels like, what hurt feels like, what fizzy infatuation feels like, and when you find a compelling way of communicating basic emotional truth, the words pop right off the page.

Which is not to say your writing should be limited to those things you've already experienced. You just need to come up with the next best thing. Probably Charlaine Harris has never met a vampire, but she makes a pretty good case for what it would be like. Most of us have met someone who was extremely charismatic and kind of frightening. Like, you know, a vampire would be. Ms. Charlaine's ability to convey the competing dynamics of attraction and fear gives her work the weight of truth, even though the situations are complete fantasy.

What's that I just said about competing dynamics? It's just a fancy way of saying a character's emotion rarely plays only one note.

4. Layer emotions.

Remember the time your sister came home and told you she'd made the cheerleading squad, and you were happy for her because you're sisters, after all, but you were also a teeny weeny bit jealous, because you're sisters, after all, and you were also also kind of excited because maybe your own dating cred would go up because of some trickle-down cool?

Because you're sisters, after all. Remember?

It's entirely possible for your characters to have mixed emotions about any given situation. To use an example from the KJ Charles book Jackdaw, Ben hated Jonah, except for how much he loved him. And Jonah loved Ben so much, he destroyed their relationship to keep him safe. The complexity of these extreme emotions (The Feels) drove the plot hard and made for compelling reading. 

(This post from Janice Hardy's Fiction University does a great job of detailing how to identify the different emotional layers in a scene. Check it out - it's worth a read.)

5. Use your setting


In #1, I talked about using behavioral cues, visceral reactions, and choreography to illustrate a character's mental/emotional state. Another way of reinforcing what's going on inside their head is to highlight details from the setting. The details you choose should help deepen the reader's connection with the character, thereby heightening their emotional response to the action on the page.

Think about it. Wuthering Heights is a very different book if it's set in contemporary L.A. (And I'm already playing with that idea, so don't even go there.) The whole dark-and-stormy-night vibe fosters a feeling of dread in the reader, one that reinforces the pathos and destructiveness of Cathy and Heathcliffe's doomed love.

More subtly, if most of your action takes place in a fairly benign suburban ranch house, maybe there's a dying potted plant in the corner that comes to represent the stress between the husband and wife who live there. A little bit of setting can go a long way, but a couple choice details can really hook your reader, increasing the emotional resonance of the scene.

6. Show some restraint.



It's not usually what you're after. Melodrama happens when your character's emotional intensity is constantly turned up to eleven. (That's a random Spinal Tap reference.) If the hint of love has them singing about daisies and rosebuds, and a bad cup of coffee brings on tears, you might have a problem.

A character doesn't have to express over-the-top feelings in order to be dramatic. You're striving for the truth, right? And just as people quite normally feel more than one emotion at a time, there are also ten steps on their emotional volume control before they get to eleven. To avoid a melodramatic, potentially comedic, overreaction, make sure you calibrate the character's response to the situation you're creating.

There may be times when you want a character to overshoot, for a deliberately humorous effect. Janet Evanovich is pretty much an expert at this, and Stephanie Plum's sidekick Lula gets just as excited about a bucket of chicken as she does about a bad guy with a gun. In general, though, it's best to leave the melodrama to Snidely Whiplash and his pals.

So there's my take on how to hit your readers right in The Feels. Show, don't tell. Give them something to relate to. Open yourself up. Layer emotions. Use your setting. Avoid melodrama. And while you're doing all that, strive to put the truth on the page, because that'll give you the biggest feels of all.


If you've got any tricks for getting The Feels on the page, leave 'em in the comments!

Wish I'd known she was going to do this so I could have worked it in friend Irene took my post and did it one better. Here's a link to The Feels (topic shamelessly stolen from Liv Rancourt)! She pretty much nails it....

If you'd like to do some more reading, here are some links...


  1. Sounds so easy to do, and yet it's not. I always feel gratuitous when I try for The Feels, and yet in order to get them sometimes you have to write what feels over the top. And then sometimes a book just has The Feels in spite of the author's writing. lol. ~Margaret

    1. I know! It's not something I'm particularly good at either, which is why I've been giving it so much thought. One of my beta readers on a recent project peppered her comments with, "but I want to know what he's feeling HERE!" and "more angst HERE!" It's tricky...and something to aspire to.

    2. Gee...I wonder who I'm talking about... ;)

  2. Great Post ... and I totally stole this topic after reading. Congrats, you finally got me to blog about something other than dessert!

    1. What a fantastic post! You totally nailed it - it's the character's flaws that make them believable/relatable, and get the reader invested in them. Strong work...though your dessert posts are awesome, too!

    2. Ack- it's just a small addendum to your much more crafty piece. And dessert is always good.... {loses train of thought while thinking about sugar}

  3. Great post!

    I think I struggle with #3. I'm not a terribly emotional person, so I have to fake it by using other people as emotional barometers.

    Now, I best be going to write that contemporary Wuthering Heights novel! :D xo
    In gratitude,

    1. You stay away from my Heathcliffe-in-a-biker-gang idea!!
      I don't see myself as being terrible emotional, either. i wonder if I has to do with being raised in an environment where restraint and keeping a stiff upper lip was valued. I swear my mother's motto was "put on a happy face...or else". It's hard to judge where to plug in The Feels when you're not used to having them.

    2. Fine. I'll leave you to Heathcliffe. ;P

      I hear that. I was (and still am) a tough little thing, so letting go of my emotions was like showing weakness. I sucked it up. I find my writing is very action driven, and sexy. I'm good with those particular feels. :D xo

      In gratitude,

    3. Me too! I'm all about the voice and the action and the sexy. I think that's why I like m/m, because guys aren't necessarily expected to have as many feels as women. Which is NOT to say guys don't have feelings, just that society teaches them to suppress them.

  4. Great post, Liv :)

    I think I may frequently be guilty of violating #6 when writing first drafts. So far I seem to be the type of writer that attempts to put in more than what's needed during the first draft, then cuts back and removes what isn't during revision. But I'm not an experienced fiction writer and I'm sure how I work will change over time as I nail down what processes tend to work best for me.

    1. That's another balancing thing, Mike. Finding the right amount of detail to support the story without dragging it down can be tricky.I'm still learning....will let you know if I ever get it right.

  5. OMG Yes! The Feels! That is what I want -- as both a reader and a writer. But you're right in saying it's not easy. Your point about giving your different characters different physical reactions/body language is something I really struggle with. And it's so easy to overdo it. During editing, I've been going through and cutting out about 2/3 of these, because so often LESS IS MORE... but the ones you leave in need to be just right. Another thing to work with is the dialogue and subtext.

    I'm so glad to hear Jackdaw has the feels. I haven't read it yet, because the preceding books probably didn't have quite enough of them for my taste... whereas TOE most definitely did.

    1. I think it was my friend Irene who said Jackdaw had The Feels because it was more focused on the relationship between Ben & Jonah than the other books had been. You'll have to tell me what you think after you read it.
      And know that you're my Gold Standard for The when Gregory & Jack is ready, I'll send it to you for a read, so you can tell me where I'm missing the good bits.

    2. Oooh Gold Standard for The Feels! I shall wear that badge with honour (or does it just mean I'm a sap?) - go figure. Bring on Gregory and Jack!
      I have a feeling I may go dip into Jackdaw right about now... and I will let you know what I think.