On my very worst writing days, I can still hear John, a member of a long defunct critique group, chastising me. “Where’s the emotion?”
“What, no emotional reaction?”
“Emotion! He has to have an emotional reaction.”
This was during the heady days when I still believed I was a great writer. Our critique group had gathered in the cafe of the late, lamented Borders Books and Music in East Brunswick, New Jersey — the bookstore where, in 1993, I met the woman who would become my wife.
Any writer knows how brutal a critique session can be. One by one, the other group members slowly, methodically, murder your “baby” with an unfeeling brutality akin to the torture scene from Reservoir Dogs, when Michael Madsen cuts off an unfortunate police officer’s ear. I can hear “Stuck in the Middle” as they point out all of those weaknesses in my plot, or the illogical actions and reactions of my beloved protagonist. “Where is the emotion?” John asks, until I wish I could go back in time and murder him in his crib.
The thing is, John was right, as he invariably is (not to mention generous, kind, and exceedingly skilled in the use of the English language.) Without his input, I would likely have sold less than half the amount of stories that I had published during the 90s (30, but who’s counting?).
I recently looked at some of those old stories, and suddenly, all of those flat emotional non-responses glared back at me, so very obvious. Over the following days, I turned those weaknesses over in my mind. I found it disturbing that my characters — my protagonists!— lacked any significant emotional responses, often to horrific events. Gradually, the truth emerged.
I was mortally afraid of my own emotions.
During the era of those critique sessions, it was still only a handful of years ago that I had attempted, twice during the same year, to end my own life. A sadness and anger that ran deep beneath the waters of my consciousness had led me to those two fateful decisions. Was it any wonder, then, that my characters avoided feeling…well, anything really. For years, I thought of it as equanimity, but there is a vast chasm that lies between evenness of temper, and outright numbness.
One thing stood out for me in Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, though in a different context than that intended in the film. Barbara (played by actress Patricia Tallman) stands over a funereal pyre, her face gilded by reflected flames, and watches the zombies burn. She utters the cryptic line, “They’re us. We’re them and they’re us.”
That is the crux of the matter: we are our characters, and they, in turn, are us. If you’re a writer whose characters remain obstinately two-dimensional, take some time to examine your own feelings. If the view of your own past makes you flinch, talk to somebody about it. There may well be more at stake than the verisimilitude of your characters.