Updated: Oct 20, 2021
Have you ever read another writer’s work and sensed there’s a layer missing that you just can’t place? Although there’s a good balance of narrative, action, dialogue and ‘show’, you’re just not sure what you should be rooting for, nor do you understand when something good happens for the protag, or when you should anticipate something bad is about to happen or is happening. It’s a subtle area, one that an untrained eye easily overlooks, and yet when pushed for an opinion on a WIP, the reader might say ‘I didn’t “get” the main character’.
It may be that the protagonist doesn’t have enough applied emotional context.
Emotional Context is the emotional status of your main character. It will form the basis of how your character perceives things and often how they will react to events and situations presented to them. Without it, your reader can feel disconnected to the character. If they don’t understand the protag’s core values and emotional makeup, they can’t anticipate certain story elements. If they don’t know what’s important to the character, what values they uphold or lack in, they might not understand when something good is about to happen, or something bad. And worse, the story stakes might be completely lost on them.
Too little attention to emotional context can end up with the author relying too heavily on the reader to make the correct assumptions without all the information. This can backfire quite severely by blindsiding the reader instead of providing a clear idea of whom they are dealing with.
To use a simple example of how this context works in storytelling, Cinderella is kind but she is lonely. What she really wants is some love in her life, but no matter how hard she tries to be nice to her step-family, it is never reciprocated. Putting her into this emotional context provides not only motivation within the story line for her actions, it also provides the basis for the character arc and draws out the underlying theme (kindness in the face of cruelty). At the beginning, it would seem that her kindness is her weakness, as no matter how kind she is to those surrounding her, bad things happen. However, by the end, we realise that her kindness is her greatest strength — it is why the animals help her, and it is the reason the prince falls in love with her. Without establishing her emotional context at the beginning, we wouldn’t understand her strength by the end.
So, what about the story stakes? Well, by understanding at the beginning that she most values kindness and love, the reader also understands that if she never escapes her cruel step-family, she will be forever consigned to a life of misery and meanness. The stakes are automatically set up, even if we didn’t really notice it.
But emotional context also works scene-by-scene. Imagine a horror story that didn’t indicate the protagonist was scared of the creepy basement under the kitchen where strange and inexplicable noises abounded. Imagine, rather than showing trepidation in approaching the door they simply strolled over and opened the door to peek inside. By the time they spied the demon creature down below it’s too late — the reader didn’t get any signals and so the whole event falls flat.
In the larger scheme of things, a clear sense of the character’s emotional context is needed to create a strong story arc — the emotional journey your protagonist endures and the markers that show your reader what changes they have undergone in order to come out the other side with a new emotional identity. Because that is what stories are about — people being fundamentally changed by plot events for the greater benefit of their own lives and of those around them. In order to enable the arc to its full effect, emotional context needs to be structurally sound in all areas of your story.
Want to learn more about emotional context within the frame of the story arc? Subscribers to my blog get a free video class on the basic concept of emotional structuring. And if you need a little extra guidance, you can also join me in the free classroom to share your thoughts or have a go at the class assignment yourself and get feedback. An opportunity not to be missed. Sign up now!