Please Finish Your Sentence: Writing the Emotionally Constipated Character

Authors, I know what you’re doing.  You’re experimenting with styles.  You know your characters, and they aren’t the guys who have eloquent conversations about their feelings.  Hell, you’re lucky if you can get them to acknowledge that they have feelings, beyond pain, hunger, and a vague yearning for existential poetry and a glass of something cold.  And maybe only part of the last one.

I get that.  There’s something really disconcerting about a woman who can’t manage to talk to someone without tripping over her own words suddenly turning into the smooth-talking star of her own life.  It feels forced, and as a reader, I call shenanigans 9 times out of 10 when it happens.  I’m not saying that even the most reserved or awkward person can’t find a moment of eloquence now and then, but when it happens, it has to be their words, not yours.

I see a lot of people leave characters like this hanging.  They have entire conversations around their chosen topic.  Sentences never get finished, thoughts are implied, but never shared, even outside the dialogue.  While fine to a point, it’s a safe bet that if someone is doing their level best to avoid talking about something, they know what that something is.  Whoever they’re talking to either knows what they mean, or didn’t need or want to in the first place.  A little bit of deflection and misunderstanding builds the tension, but when every emotional scene reads like this, you lose people.

So if you can’t force it out of them, and they won’t actually say it themselves, where does that leave you?

In a pretty good position, actually.  Because the character might not know how to put what they want or feel into words, but you, as the writer, should know what your character is thinking, and be able to convey it even if they can’t.

If most of your conversations reads like this:

“I know.  It’s just… Well.”

“Yeah.  I know.”

then you should know that a) you’re making my dentist very happy, because my jaw is clenched again, and b) both of them may know, but your reader doesn’t.  No matter what you think you’re implying with vague, circular dialogue, unless you give some level of context, mostly what you’re doing is frustrating your reader.

If you tried something more like this:

“I know.  It’s just… Well.”  Tisha’s fingers clenched in her pocket.  Karen had seen the note, she was certain.

“Yeah.  I know.”  Karen sounded resigned, her gaze darting to Tisha’s face for a second before she looked away again.

your reader has some context for the emotional flailing.  Obviously, within a story, your audience is going to have more than two lines of dialogue to orient themselves, but those emotional markers make it easier to relate Tisha’s halting speech to something real.  You’re not giving away your emotional payoff too soon, but you are making sure that someone (other than Tisha and Karen) has a clear idea of what Tisha isn’t talking about, and the tension between Tisha and Karen is actually ratcheted up a little, because your reader can understand Tisha’s reluctance.

I enjoy emotionally constipated characters.  I write them all the time, and I love the knots they can twist themselves into, just to avoid accidentally having a feeling.  Your character can be as emotionally withdrawn as you want, but your story can’t be.  Even if they can’t finish a sentence, you, as the writer, have to.



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