Cat Herding 101   11 comments

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

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Defining Terms at the Outset


Let’s define our terms first. A writer is someone who writes. An author is someone whose writing is published. A novelist is someone who writes fiction.

Do we assume the author who wrote Essentials of Modern Refrigeration (a book on my husband’s shelf in the family library) had strong emotions about refrigeration? How about the Chilton’s Manual on Ford Taurus 1995-2010?

Yes, writers produced those books and I’m thinking neither of them wept over any chapter of them, although I can assure you my husband has shed a few tears over that stupid California car in our driveway. It will someday be replaced by a nice sensible Subaru or a Jeep that’s old enough to vote. (We both hate modern electronics and want cars that we can work on).

Can someone be a novelist if they don’t feel emotion strongly?

Can AI Write Novels?

That’s a more nuanced answer, isn’t it? Afterall an AI recently penned a road-trip narrative novel and some of its lines made me go “hmm, that’s interesting.” Starting with “It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy”, 1 the Road reads like a Google Street View car  narrating a cross-country journey to itself. It’s a tour of the built and noisy world interpreted by a machine. It’s surveillance-technology fiction, written by the same species of technology that is conducting the surveillance and processing the data. What might an AI teach us about a world already so totally impacted and sculpted by the data it gathers that a human writer can’t? For the record, to a natural-rights libertarian who believes in human individuality, it was … pause-worthy. I didn’t consider it great literature for some of the same reasons I don’t think Jack Kerouac’s Benzedrine-fueled On the Road was great literature, but the AI’s view of the American highway system did make me think, and unsettled me enough to stir dystopian sci-fi novel possibilities in my imagination.

For now, let’s just focus on the humans.

Novelists deal in the arena of feeling and emotion. Our books thrive on the conflict wrought in the character’s emotions. Obviously, a novelist must understand emotion and the best way to understand it is to feel it, but is the writer required to be a hot mess with internal conflicts similar to the character? I hope not.

I am currently working on a YA that is the start of a series that will follow the young adulthood of Peter – a hot mess whose internal conflicts are going to lead to dark places. I’ve never been a teenage boy and I’ve never engaged in some of the behaviors Peter engages in. I keep giving my 21-year-old son chapters of the first book to read and he’s starting to say “Mom, did you read my mind when I was 17? You’re scaring me.”

Write What You Know?

Or Understand What You Write?

Clearly, I am not writing what I personally know. I was last a teenager decades ago, but I’m not Peter. I am drawing off of my own experiences and conversations I had with my kids and their friends. I’m feeling Peter’s emotions, but they are not my emotions. To a large degree it is a cerebral process of applying knowledge in the arena of emotions.

I worked in community mental health for almost two decades. I was an administrator, not a clinician, although that line blurred often because I wasn’t afraid to interact with clients. Much of what I say in the next few paragraphs pertains to what I learned from that experience.

Feeling requires introspection, which necessitates identification with the character and empathy for what he or she faces. But, the story’s action and its characters are vehicles through which the reader creates her own emotional experience. The goal is not to get readers to feel what the characters feel per se, but to use the characters’ emotional conflict as a device to get readers to feel something on their own.

Recent neurological research suggests the mind must assess a feeling in order to experience it fully. Despite the modernist advice to “show, don’t tell,” readers need some processing of feeling by the character to register it meaningfully. This means allowing characters to think about what they’re feeling, which makes the feelings both more concrete and more personal and creates time and space for readers to process their own feelings. If the writer attempts to connect the reader to the character’s feelings, then the reader must be able to ask if they feel the same way or if their feelings differ.

Does this mean a cerebral writer be a good novelist? Hemingway was a pretty strict advocate of “show, don’t tell” and his novels impacted me powerfully. I love reading Hemingway, but I long ago departed from his journalistic just-the-facts style to a novel style that focuses on revealing a character’s emotion through a particularly dramatic scene or a series of scenes that culminate in a devastating reveal or reversal, plunging the character, and hopefully the reader, into a powerful emotional event, followed by a scene that has some introspection, permitting characters and readers alike to take a breather and process what just happened.

I use that technique a lot in Transformation Project. There’s a traumatic event or series of events followed by a time of the town turning inward and characters analyzing what just happened. Within those “resting” scenes, the point-of-view character often registers and analyzes the emotional impact of recent events, comes to a somewhat logical conclusion about the meaning of those events, and makes a plan of how to proceed going forward.

Peter will do the same thing, though this younger character will have fewer skills for how to analyze his emotional experiences because 17-year-olds live “in the moment” and it’s hard for them to see what tomorrow might look like.

If You’re Going to Herd Cats, You Must Understand Cats

My hope is readers will process their own emotions and interpretation of events while the character is doing so, not necessarily in parallel or even consciously.

And there’s a proviso here – it needs to be brief because I don’t want to bore or alienate readers who may be ready to move on. The point isn’t to over-analyze the character’s feelings, but to clear a space for readers to examine their own feelings. And, frankly, in most of our lives, we spend very little time in introspection because we’re too busy cleaning up the messes our actions cause.

A character changes through the emotions he experiences and through the evolution in self-awareness this process allows. This gradual metamorphosis creates the story’s internal arc, providing the character an opportunity to move step-by-step from being at the mercy of his emotions to mastering his feelings, providing a means for the reader to traverse an arc of her own, expanding her emotional self-awareness … hopefully.

I can only write it. Herding readers is a lot like herding cats. You have to set up the conditions where they think it’s their idea to go in the direction you suggest — which leaves open the possibility that they will choose a direction you didn’t plan. I love when someone gets a message from my books that I didn’t consciously intend.

So, yes, you can write if you don’t feel strong emotions, so long as you understand how to evoke strong emotions in others, but I think you have to have some feeling at some level to know how to pull on the heartstrings of others. I don’t think we need to worry about artificial intelligence replacing novelists.

Posted February 10, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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11 responses to “Cat Herding 101

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  1. Interesting, Lela. To date, I have written mainly from a female perspective although in my WIP two of the main characters are men. I also don’t believe the AI will ever replace writers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My main characters are almost always male. I can’t say why exactly, although I think it has something to do with growing up in Alaska when the male to female ratio was 4:1. I just got to know a lot more men. That’s the theory anyway.

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  3. Hi Lela, unless I’m mistaken I think this is next week’s topic? However, like you it’s better for me to be able to make others feel emotions about a particular experience if I’ve actually been through it myself.


  4. A life of angst is useful, it all adds to the mystique of the tortured artist. Observation of how different people deal with emotion, and life in general, has helped me write (hopefully realistic) female characters. Although to be fair, they mostly write themselves. I just describe what they’re up to and how they react.


    • That’s kind of how I write my male characters. Ever so often my husband will say “Uh, most guys don’t necessarily think like I do and I raised the kid.” And then I go ask on of our male friends and they either set me straight or tell me my instincts aren’t all that off.


  5. Pingback: Writing Passion | aurorawatcherak

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