“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”
― Helen Keller
Really good and memorable fiction takes characters on an external and an emotional journey. As an author, knowing how to help your characters navigate this emotional journey is an invaluable tool, that once learned will enable you to breathe life into your characters. The shortcut to creating fully formed, authentic characters is to give them believable emotions.
Let’s talk about feelings.
Thirty or so emotions will be covered in this series. There are far more than that, but I think that will be a good start. Let’s start with contentment.
Contentment: a mental or emotional state of satisfaction drawn from being at ease in one’s situation—both body and mind.
The pursuit of contentment is the central thread through many philosophies and religions across many cultures and religions. Recent fixations on maintaining an “attitude of gratitude” and keeping gratitude journals are both ways that we’re all seeking contentment. I think the real source of contentment is a bit more specific than the Webster definition. It lives in the now and is total satisfaction for what you have in that moment—even if you still want or need more.
How do you create emotionally developed characters?
This emotion can be the end of your character’s journey, or it could be the start of a major conflict that sets them on a road to becoming someone else.
A character at the end of their emotional journey may look back on their troubled past and the hard road it took to get to the present moment of complete satisfaction. While, in contrast, a character at the beginning of their emotional journey will feel gratitude in the present moment while fully expecting that satisfaction to continue.
To write this emotion, draw on your own memories. Don’t think of some picturesque ideal of contentment. Instead, think of a moment when you felt total satisfaction, a completeness and rightness in the world. Have your character look at their past, present, and into the future where they expect to continue to feel that satisfaction.
Things that contribute to contentment:
Genes: there’s evidence that suggests that there is a relationship between contentment and genetic makeup. You don’t have to worry too much about the truth of that, but it’s safe to say that if your character’s come from a happy and content family, they are more likely to be happy and content.
Personality: Personality can be narrowed down to five inheritable factors; openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Only two of these aspects are related to happiness and contentment—or the lack thereof—extraversion and neuroticism. An extravert is, or appears, more happy and content. The more neurotic or emotionally unstable a character is, the more likely they are to be unhappy or discontent.
Goal oriented: Giving your character goals that align with their personality traits can contribute to feelings of confidence and competence. It’s important to give them goals that are not too easy or unattainable, but still challenging. By contrast, any energy invested in avoiding goals can diminish happiness and contentment as well as deter them from achieving their goals.
Financial stability: As much as we’re warned against it, many people associate money with happiness and contentment. That may be a symptom of materialism and our growing attachment to things—I mean, did you witness all of that pushback against Marie Kondo? But however you slice it, money is definitely connected to positive outcomes. However, money has a very small impact on happiness. When you’re developing a character, consider their financial stability and how much it factors into their contentment. Are they scrounging to make ends meet, but still content to have their family around them? Or is it mo’ money, mo’ problems?
Work-life balance: Did you just roll your eyes? I did. I’m so sick of hearing and reading those words, but that doesn’t negate the fact that having a balance between the two is an essential part of what it means to be human.
Your character might be the type that hates their job and is constantly looking to take a break or run away from that. Or maybe they’re the type that loves their work and is only content and happy when they are dedicating all of their time to that. Both characters have important lessons to learn on that emotional journey.
Mental and physical health: A healthy body and a healthy mind contributes greatly to a person’s overall wellbeing. When your character lacks one or both, it’s difficult for happiness or contentment to be achieved…or so we’re told. The fact is that plenty of mentally and disabled people have pushed back against the idea that they can’t live happy and contented lives. If you’re crafting a character who isn’t in the best mental or physical health, try not to make the story about any suffering brought on by their condition, but with outside circumstances that affect it, i.e., discrimination, and/or overcoming the negative impressions or assumptions made about them.
Laughter: Let’s face it, all of us could use more laughter and lividity in our lives. A daily dose of laughter or comedy in your character’s everyday life could have a positive impact on their level of happiness and content.
However, you decide to use this emotion in your writing, be aware that you must do it convincingly. Readers are more inclined to accept conflict, even tragedy than believe all is right with the world.
Next week, we’ll talk about desire.