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Emotional Complexity in Literary Fiction

by William H. Coles

In some ways, emotional complexity, beautifully rendered, clearly defines literary fiction from most genre fiction.  Of course literary fiction, like much genre fiction, has character, has a dramatic plot, and has tension and mystery so the reader reads on to enjoy.  But it is the emotional tangles and reversals that occur in the literary story that not only involve the reader but create reader emotions too.

Without exception, in good literary fiction, emotional complexity must be earned, it must be credible to the reader, it must be logical for the character’s complexities and for the story plot, too, and there must be elements of surprise without being unfaithful to the character’s established mores, sensitivities, and beliefs.

Desire and emotion

Every character has some essential desire that drives his or her action in a story.  Once a character’s desire is established, the opposite is often established, an opposite that will conflict with character achieving satisfaction with the desire.  This can be essential in a literary fiction story as an art form.  Example: if a character tries to believe God is love, the opposite might be, God is uncaring.   If an essential desire for a character is self-adoration for a his or her talent, the opposite might be fear of no talent, or crippling shyness.  These opposites develop an inner conflict that starts the character into action, and the emotions involved will be identifiable by the reader, will establish strong character sympathy, and will be engaging.

Emotional complexity

A character’s desire stems from  basic needs or wants. Needs come from inner turmoil that has two or more sides.  Bad /Good, Hate/Love, True/Flase, etc.

A character may act with overly friendly behavior, or sullen inaction, from the pain he or shefeels from  abandonment.  If a character feels unjustly accused, it may be opposed by anger, or timidity, or spite.  Finding these emotion interactions is an asset for developing characterization, story momentum, and reader interest.

Delivery of emotions in a story must be paced and matched to appropriate intensity.  Much of this is instinctive for some authors, but when a story is not working, it may be helpful to analyze the rate of delivery of the emotional information.

In general, hyperintense emotions narrow an author’s options for characterization and plot development.  A character in a murderous rage narrows thinking and energy options to a precise, concentrated focus that may limit effective story development.

Sexual erotic intensity also limits emotional and dramatic options for the writer.  With erotic intensity, the character is focused on self in all-consuming way which limits authorial use of the other interesting and essential conflicting actions that enhance charaterization. 

Action delivers emotion most effectively when story-time allows.

Emotions are more effective when they arepresented to the reader through action. Even though action takes more story-time to express and is harder to write than most narrative, action evades sentimentality, is more credible and signifigant, and  more deeply engages the the reader.

He loved Peggy.

Love is a general, abstract (as opposed to specific and concrete) term, which tells nothing specific about his love for Peggy.  The narrator is telling how the character feels but his feeling for Peggy is better established in the longer, more concrete, in-scene passage.  

In the night, with his eyes closed before he slept, his image of Peggy haunted him with her mysterious smile and magnetic blue eyes, misty yet so distant he knew his desire to touch her was impossible, and she would fade away.

The narrator shows how the character feels about Peggy. 

The concept of transferring emotions to the reader, as opposed to telling the reader about a character’s emotions, is not easy to explain or grasp.  Compare:  “She was so sad,” to “She wept, her body trembling.”  One is telling, one is showing.  Another example:  “’Go jump in the lake,’ he said angrily,” to “He grabbed her by the ankles and held her over the cliff until she pleaded for mercy.” The second line uses action to indicate emotion rather than telling reader how a character feels.

Internal reflection and back story delivery

Love, hate, jealousy, etc. are abstractions, loose words with multiple interpretations.  For the writer, imagination must create concrete action scenes that convey love to the reader for geatest impact when indicated.

Weaving emotions of the characters is difficult, and when using narrative prose,  story can be disrupted by extraneous emotions not story related.

Jake put the 707 on autopilot and studied the radar. He would have to make a decision whether to bypass a storm or fly through it. He asked the copilot for further updates from ground control and looked into the night remembering a storm at his aunt Bertha’s house when he was twelve. A storm with frightening lightening that hit a tree that burned for hours  thunder loud enough to dull his hearing for hours. His Aunt Bertha held him so close he remembered the lavender scent of her perfume the feel her beating heart.

Ground control reported two other additional cells with high winds and advised diversion. He couldn’t be late on this leg again. He pressed on instructing the passengers to prepare for a bumpy ride.

This moving into a character’s consciousness (either in third person or first person) and the delivery of expository information or back story is common, but is often antithetical to good prose.  In revisions, these questions should be asked:  What is the purpose of the passage? Are the emotions essential to this story, and, if so, is the intensity level right? If important, is there a way to seamlessly insert information into dramatic action without back story or internal musings?


For literary fiction as art, emotions of characters must be complex; must be carried through a story with an arc-like, intense change; must not be sentimental; and must be logical for the story plot and characterization. For writers, every great literary story will depend on different emphasis and requirements of emotional complexity. Therefore, writers need skill to create effective prose to present emotion in the storytelling that significantly enhances story.

For an EXAMPLE of a story with strong emotional progression, see The Thirteen Nudes of Ernest Goings.

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10 thoughts on “Emotional Complexity in Literary Fiction

  • Olivia

    hello, I read the essay and i found it fascinating, I’m using it to a homework in English, could you tell me which year it was published?

  • John Patterson

    It is rather degrading and disingenuous to insinuate that literary fiction is distinguished from “genre” fiction by its greater emotional depth. Such a charge implies that the trappings of genre fiction automatically preclude the same depth and quality of emotions, or that genre writers are incapable of placing that depth into their stories. Not only is this demonstrably false (check the works of Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Ursula K. LeGuin, Patrick Rothfuss, etc.), but it closes off genre fiction from ever being taken seriously, even when it earns that right. Genre fiction is thus arrogantly waved off as “a fun read” or “escapist,” even if the particular work being addressed deserves consideration that is far deeper and more nuanced.

    • Nikflorida

      They say that successful writers are first voracious readers. That assumes a certain level of reading comprehension, I suppose. Nowhere has Dr. Coles suggested that genre fiction CANNOT be literary, or that characters in genre fiction cannot be emotionally complex. OSC is probably a good example of how this can be achieved, you’re right. Meanwhile, Dr. Coles merely suggests that literary fiction MUST have emotional complexity of character. If all A must be B, that is certainly not to say that {B} may only contain {A} and nothing else.

  • Ali Anani

    This is a fantastic reading and shows that emotional development path is not linear. Emotions interact in a complex plane and it is not always possible to determine the outcome of emotional interactions.
    I have published few presentations on emotional interactions. I want to give one reference that adds tremendous support to this post. Here is the link:

    • admin

      Those are arrows pointing to central line, trying to illustrate a spectrum with the extremes on the end. I think what you are bringing up on your browser is stray code (I have no expertise in this area). We’ll try to fix that so there is consistency among browsers. Thanks for calling our attention to it. WHC

      • Olivia

        hello, I read the essay and i found it fascinating, I’m using it to a homework in English, could you tell me which year it was published?