On Fictional Characters and Real Emotions

People sometimes ask about the emotional content of scenes.  How as a writer do I invest the lives of characters with joys or griefs that make them come alive?

I can see the process more clearly when I re-read than when I write.  What happens, I think, is that I graft characters and situations from the story onto emotions that are true for me.  Say a character, an old man, dies.  He’s ninety, the passing is expected, it’s sad but not tragic.  At first, I know as little about him as readers do.  I’ve never met the man.  But in the process of writing the scene—say, the gathering of friends and family after a funeral—I learn who he is in two ways: by inventing details of his life (as new to me in the moment of writing as they are to the reader in reading) and, more important, by grafting those details onto an emotion I’ve lived.

We’ve all endured the death of someone dear to us.  When I write a scene about loss, I may be recalling the loss of a particular person or, more generally, the experience of watching friends and family die over the years.  Along comes my character.  I’ve invented the details of his life and death; but the emotional content of that loss is genuine.  A kind of hybrid, or quasi-life takes form in the process: the character who dies on the page is not real, exactly, but neither is he unreal.  The same process is at work when I write of joy, of the erotic, of wonder.  I try to graft the unreal, the invented, onto the real, onto something that rings true at least for me.

What about for readers?  If I do my job, readers get the chance to work a similar magic.  The successful scene summons their emotional memories, which can be powerful.  Readers know when they read a novel that the details of a character’s life are invented; but when those details tap into the reservoir of their emotional memories, the scene comes alive.  In some strange way, the fictional is made real.  The reader becomes the writer’s partner and the novel succeeds.

The larger question is why do we bother inventing and listening to, or reading, stories?   I’ll leave that for another post


  1. Randy Torkelson says:

    Mr Rosen,

    I am currently re-listening to All Cry Chaos in audible book form. Since my first listening a few months ago, I have been anticipating news of a second Poincare novel. Today, I received that news. I cannot wait until September (though, I guess I must). You have created a character in Henri that is sure to grow in stature in your reader’s minds eye. Congratulations, and to many more stories involving Henri Poincare. Randy

    • Thank you, Randy. I’m getting to know Poincare well enough to realize that I want to spend time with him. There will be more HP stories beyond The Tenth Witness.

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