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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 cann be essential in literary fiction 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 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 inner emotions stem from a basic need or want, which is often not obvious until late in the story writing.  Needs come from inner turmoil.  And a turmoil has two sides.  Bad /Good, Hate/Love, True/Flase, etc.

If a character feels abandoned, he or she may repress it with contrasting overly friendly behavior, or sullen inaction.  If a character feels unjustly accused, it may be opposed by anger, or timidity, or spite.  Finding these interactions of emotion ican be essential for building emotional complexities through the craft of prose, and for developing power in the story momentum and 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, which can improve story momentum and clarity of purpose.

In writing, emotions have certain intensities or lack thereof.  This is sometimes referred to as valence (1).  An emotional valence must not be the same scene after scene – to avoid monotony – and it also must be believable for characters at that time in the story.  A husband cannot be in discussion with his wife about the pregnancy of their oldest daughter, then stand up and brutally murder the housekeeper, for example.  A rage that results in murder is the wrong intensity for the moment.

Also, hyperintense emotions tend to narrow the options for a character, that is, those options that are based on a character’s action.  A character in a murderous rage has narrowed his or her thinking and energy to a precise, concentrated focus.  Possible actions are also narrowed and there is, at some point, a need to calm the intensity, which unavoidably slows the action and may alter the emotions.

It is useful to note that erotic intensity also begins to close down emotional and dramatic options for the writer.  With erotic intensity, the character is focused on self in all-consuming ways, which is in the satisfaction and attainment of feelings.  When eroticism dominates a story, this often closes off the interesting and essential conflicting actions that occur between characters, and that may be necessary for significance of a literary fictional story.  Also, when eroticism presides in a scene or story, the story may require descriptions of the feelings of the eroticisms, the perceptions, et cetera, since the opportunities for action in the dramatic present are limited by a short time period – you can only maintain erotic intensity for so long – and there is always the necessity for close narration and strong voice that limits options.  For certain stories, this is the desired process enjoyed by the reader – romance for example.  But for the literary story, it may slow down story progression.  All this relates to the writer’s skill to handle these scenes in literary fiction in a measured, emotional way that is maximal for the story.

Establishing emotional lines in a story

Discovering the emotional lines of a story takes many careful readings of the story. In reading a story, and in revising the writing of a story, a four step process is useful2: 1) read story through without uninterruption, 2) read story through while making notes on craft and structure, 3) read story through starting with the last few pages – for continuity of emotion development, 4) read through the last time and trace the emotional relations of each character to determine validity, absence of sentimentality, progression, and significant reasonable change in at least the protagonist.

For great stories, this discovery of the subsurface currents in a story is extremely pleasing to some readers, usually careful and knowledgeable readers.  For the writer to track emotional lines to find where they can be strengthened to benefit the story, it is often useful to color code each character’s emotional journey through the story (or use unique marking specific to each character such as underline, bold, italic, et cetera).  Although seeming mechanical in the process of writing, it allows a uniformity and assurance of change and progression in the story that enhance the enjoyment of all readers.

Tracing emotional lines in a story can also help determine the right intensities for emotions as they relate to dramatic plot structure.  The effort is worthwhile.  Too many stories have intense emotion inadvisably mixed with intense plot activity. In combination, the value of both is diminished.

Many writers instinctively know the use and effect of character emotions in their particular story, but improvement in storytelling for many authors often improves with learning and consiidering how emotions might function in their sttorytelling.

Visualizing Emotional Complexity in a Story

Figure.  A way to visualize emotional stakes and interactions in

primary (A, B, C) and secondary (1 ,2, 3) characters.

Action delivers emotion most effectively when time allows.

Emotions are never as effective when described in narrative as when they are illuminated for the reader through action.  Action takes more story time to express and is harder to write, but it has less chance of sentimentality and is more easily accepted as credible and true by 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.

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.

This may be overwritten and trite (for emphasis) to many, but still his feeling for Peggy is better established in the longer, more concrete passage.  The narrator is showing how the character feels.  Showing of emotions can be in the dramatic present of a scene, and does not have to be in the character’s consciousness.

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.  On a simplistic level, 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.”  While admittedly too obvious for good writing, the second lines use action to show emotion, rather than telling the reader how the character feels.

Eric felt just terrible about Granny’s death.  Patti was devastated and Georgiana hurt inside.  I sat by her coffin and cried.

Note that the telling of Eric, Patti, and Georgiana’s emotions is flat and unconvincing.  By the time some action (crying and sitting by casket) implies the “I’s” grief, the (minimal) action is ineffective in causing any sympathy or emotion in the reader because it is sentimental.  (The sentimentality is also partially due to the clichéd use of “sitting by the casket.”)

Of course, telling of a character’s emotion is often necessary.  Telling is brief, and the compromise of sacrificing action to demonstrate emotion at times is essential for brevity and pacing in prose.  But telling is easier to write, and if improperly used, will suggest laziness on the part of the writer.  To improve the quality of storytelling, a writer must develop effective emotional arcs in a story – arcs that move the story and bind the characters to plot and meaning.  Showing emotions is the most effective technique for writing great fiction.

In creating emotional arcs in a story, a valauble concept for all main characters in a fictional story, the emotional arc must be consistent as well as progressive.  Often, a reversal or change in the emotional progression serves as a crucial element of story surprise and meaning.  To be simplistic again with an example:  An angry, resentful father cruelly verbally abuses his children, but as the story progresses through conflict with his employer, he discovers kindness as a way to express his ever-present love to his children.  These emotional arcs of characters work side-by-side and intertwine with the plot and momentum of the story in the dramatic present; in addition, to create significant story meaning and change (enlightenment) in the reader, arcs should be identified by the author during the creative process.

Internal reflection and back story delivery

Love is an abstraction, a loose word with multiple interpretations.  For the writer, imagination must create concrete action scenes that convey love to the reader with impact.

If a writer accepts the importance of emotional complexities necessary for a great literary fictional story, it then becomes the challenge to weave emotions of the characters, assure a change in the emotions, make them credible and relevant to the story.  Most mediocre writers slather their stories with emotions told to the reader, often unrelated to story, and sometimes more related to author than character.  Here is a common construction (over-written for emphasis) of internal reflection used to tell emotions unrelated to plot momentum or significant character development.

Jake put the 707 on autopilot and studied the radar.  They would have to make a decision whether to bypass the storm or fly through it.  He asked the copilot for further updates from ground control.

Jake looked into the night remembering a storm at his aunt Bertha’s house when he was twelve.  The thunder scared him, and the lighting hit a tree that burned for hours.  His Aunt Bertha held him.  He remembered the lavender scent of her perfume, she always wore perfume, the essence changing daily, and he could feel her heart.  He knew that heart beat for him, he was her only living relative.  But she died two weeks later, buried next to his own heartless mother in an unkempt  cemetery plot not more than a mile from where he was born.  He’d never forgotten that storm, the fury.  He still dreamt about it.

Ground control reported two other additional cells just beyond this one that were serious obstacles if he decided to fly around this one.  They advised a steady course.  Over the intercom he instructed the passengers to prepare.

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 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?  Is the passage effective in holding reader attention and creating sympathy and feelings in the reader?  Is there sentimentality?


Sentimentality is almost totally a subjective conclusion.  Sentimentality is emotion rejected by a reader when the emotion has not been earned through action and credible character development.  Often the writer uses clichés or hackneyed descriptions, or simply extraneous authorial ideas.

Literary writers seek to satisfy the sentimental aesthetics and acceptance of a specific reader, usually a reader seeking enjoyment from perfectly crafted stories as an art form.  Stories created without cliché, with primarily action scenes, and credibly unique characters. It is a potential failure for a writer to convince a specific reader through the quality of the prose that the false emotion is offered as real.  In reality, this occurs in most writing.  But for great literary fiction, it should not occur if the story is to engage a sophisticated reader whose enjoyment comes from quality emotional-complexity expressed skillfully with concrete and imaginative prose.

In genre fiction, sentimentality is what sells.  Plots are repetitive, characters stereotyped, outcomes predictable . . . all of which results in openly sentimental writing.  Romance readers, in fact, seek sentimentality to enjoy and, as proof of popularity, romance genre fiction sells far more successfully than literary fiction.


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 in creating prose that works effectively so they can incorporate thinking about emotional complexities in their story creations.

1 In chemistry, valence, also known as valency or valency number, is a measure of the number of chemical bonds formed by the atoms of a given element.  [Wikipedia].


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

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7 thoughts on “Emotional Complexity in Literary Fiction

  • 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