On Intransitive Emotions

Writing emotions is complicated. Do all your characters’ emotions make sense? Tips for writing fiction and nonfiction.

Where Do Emotions Go?

Do feelings have direct objects? Many do. Most of the time.

We do not feel an emotion like love if it is not directed toward some thing or someone. We don’t usually feel anger without a source, a thing that is the reason for our anger. Whether or not anger and love are ultimately directed toward the correct thing is a separate issue. But overall, they are not objectless. Not without objective.

But what about gratitude? Or loneliness? Or even anxiety?

Some human emotions, like some verbs in the English language, may not need to act upon a direct object. Some things we, as humans, simply feel without it being directed toward a specific thing. Regardless of who caused the emotion or where it came from. Or what we plan to do with it.

I recently heard that grief is love with nowhere to go. How beautifully tragic is that? You have so much love, but no object to direct it toward. You’ve lost someone or something you love, and what’s left is this love with no object to love. So it is transformed into grief. And then what do you do with it?

Writing Emotional Range

Consider: It is easy to write about emotions that come from an obvious person or can be directed easily outward or inward toward some manifestation. It is easy to show that a character is angry based on his or her reaction to the circumstances.

But your writing can grow from learning to express the intransitive actions and feelings of life. The things we all simply feel. The things we can’t necessarily explain or even express.

Consider the sentence: He ran.

The verb does not need to act on anything. It stands alone. No object. What emotions might your character have that run by themselves? What emotional state does your character default to?

How can you express something like a character’s gratitude for the wind on her face, and is she grateful to somone or something? Does your character’s emotion have an object? It can. Just like he can run quickly. Or he can run on the pavement, she can be grateful to someone or something. Even if it’s ineffible.

And if you, dear writer, can make your characters’ actions and intransitive emotions tangible, you will lead readers in a much richer world.


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