Ask an Editor: Emotional Mapping
People don't just ... do stuff. Every action that you take is informed by what's going on around you and, more importantly, what's going on inside. Your actions and reactions change depending on your mood. That's why as a kid, when you wanted something important you would wait until your parents were in the right mood before you would ask for that thing you really, really wanted. If they were happy you had a better chance to get that coveted "Yes."
The same thing is true for your characters.
Every action they take or reaction that they have must be informed by their emotional state. Otherwise, it's going to feel wrong or fake to the reader. And, very importantly, these emotions have to be consistent from scene to scene.
So, if the world has been piling crap onto your main character (as often happens in any good story) they're obviously going to be getting more and more upset, which means that they're going to be more likely to make desperate, bad decisions, or to say "No" to things, or to push people away.
Conversely, if your character has just gone out with her best friend and had the most amazing day ever and everything has gone right and she is on top of the world, she's going to be in a good mood. She's going to be more likely to say "Yes," less likely to say "No," etc. and so forth.
If for plot reasons you really, really need your main character to pick a fight with their boyfriend, then you should probably have some bad stuff happen to them first so they are logically in a bad mood. You can't come off a happy, joyful memory and go immediately into a scene that's angry and upset without some kind of transition or action to cause the emotional change.
This gets really tricky when you're revising and you have to start moving entire scenes around. It can be really hard to keep track of the emotional continuity for any given character if you've suddenly moved up "The Big Fight" by four chapters.
Often when I'm editing and I come across a problem like this, I like to do something Lauren calls Emotional Mapping. I'll look at the problematic section and go scene by scene filling out some version of the following:
Character's emotional state going in:
Once you have all of that laid out in a grid, it can be really easy to spot the places where the actions don't match the emotions. It's also helpful to show when your character is in emotional stasis. No one is happy all the time, and no matter how much bad stuff is happening to your character, it's going to be exhausting for your readers if they never have any moments of joy.
So the next time you're revising your work, be aware of your character's emotional progression. Does it make logical sense? Are there clear reasons or triggers for why they are feeling/thinking/acting the way they are?
Giving your characters a well-plotted emotional journey will make them more relatable and three-dimensional. It makes them more human, and your readers will feel a much stronger connection to them.
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