The Real F word: Writing FEELINGs Into Your Characters


On occasion I’ll share a critique or a letter from a critique partner. The names of the writer and the story have been changed so I don’t have to give them credit for writing my blog for me.

Learn about why you should join a critique group HERE

Dear Dan,


Some of my crits and beta readers suggest my writing is too male. I’ve been reading chik lit trying to get a better sense for how to go deeper with character development and the “F” word-feelings. I’ve noticed the opposite with some female writers; their male characters are too effeminate to be credible.


Here is an example:


“The character of Fred (in a post-apocalyptic zombie story) could use more emotional depth. For example, he finds a little girl. How does he feel about that? Is this a common thing, for him to see children and then treat them like adults? He really doesn’t internally process her presence at all.”

I don’t even know what some of that stuff means. And he’s writing to me for help!

The comments went on:

“I guess I want to know how he feels about the (post-apocalyptic world). Is he bitter? Did he give something/someone up? Does he resent his new life or does he like the freedom? Does she remind him of someone he left behind? I know a lot about his physical appearance and how he feels about that. Less of that would be okay. I would prefer to know more about his internal life.”



Wow, that’s a tricky area to navigate.

But I will. Cos that’s what we do here.

My critique partner asked:

When I read about Mike (the MC in Poggibonsi), I wonder the same thing. Are the ladies working you over for Mike’s leering? Do they want to know how he FEELS about being dissed by Mattie (Mike’s wife)? If Mike exposed these things would he just be pussywhipped or someone they have a crush on?


I’ve read a couple of Jilliane Hoffman’s books. That lady writes men like men. I mean you can feel the testosterone ooze off the pages. Then when she’s on the female characters, you see them entirely female.


I always appreciate your ideas, your candor and encouragement.


All this feeling stuff though, I need to go out and kill something.

That last comment is why I love the guy.

Don’t you, too, though? He’s trying so hard!

Okay, first decide who you are writing the story for. It’s not for everyone. Think of that target audience, narrow it down to one “person,” and write to him or her.

Learn more about that HERE:

Then, don’t be afraid to show places where your character would have an emotion. It’s not all the time. If the zombie apocalypse story is lighthearted, it doesn’t need too much in the way of feelings. But characters evolve. Well, not the zombie characters. But the people in the zombie story may start out being not too feely, and grow to care about each other.

Shameless plug for upcoming novel
Shameless plug for upcoming novel

My MC in my comedy “Poggibonsi” doesn’t get beat up at all – because he is vulnerable. He has feelings and he shows them.

What are some things he does to show emotions?

The first thing he does, page one: he stops what he’s doing and talks to his young daughter. He picks her up and holds her. He takes the time to explain things to her in a way she’ll understand. That implies love.

Then, he wants to get frisky with his wife even though she’s grousing about being fat (she’s not fat). He ignores the comment and expresses his interest in her.

When they go shopping in Italy and she doesn’t buy anything and gets upset (again, because she says she’s fat – and while nobody else thinks that, does it really matter?) she decides to go drown her sorrow in ice cream, he doesn’t understand but he runs to open the door for her.

Plus, he has women flirting with him and he ignores it – because he loves his wife.

At school he’s involved with his daughter’s activities and friends. Now, that doesn’t mean his wife Mattie skips those things, but he’s involved.

Then he makes his daughter breakfast when his wife is hung over.

He worries about the possibility of divorce when he hears that her long-time friends are divorcing.

That’s all emotional stuff.

Later, they are traveling and they have a fight right before she has to return home (he has to stay a while longer for business) so she leaves on bad terms. He takes a shower in the hotel, then finds himself staring at the phone while he gets dressed. He wants her to call – we’ve all had that emotion – but by then she’s been so cruel to him just about every woman reading the story has given him permission to go cheat on her.

Go figure.

But that’s because it’s a story. You can do that in a story. It’s pretend, and people want to escape.

(Do not do that in real life. We will find your headless body in a ditch somewhere. You’ve been warned.)

When Mike leers at the beautiful young woman on the train, he feels bad about it. He worries about even sitting in the compartment with her, and doesn’t do it until somebody else does. He keeps checking her out, but he doesn’t think the other guy on the train should. He knows he shouldn’t be doing it either. He doesn’t say “Wow look at those tits!” He notices her eyes, her hair, her bracelet. And, well, yeah, her tits – because he’s a guy. But he doesn’t call them that. He even says derriere instead of ass or butt. That’s so women readers don’t get offended and also to show the character considers how women would feel about such words. That’s emotional stuff, his inner turmoil.

We talked a little about that stuff HERE

But in the end my story is mostly funny, so characters are allowed to be a bit crazy.

“If it’s funny enough, you can pretty much do anything.” – me.

I’m not saying I do it right 100% when it comes to emotions in my characters, or even that I get it right the first time. I bounced that “I’m fat” comment off a valued female critique partner. I asked another one how many lbs. a woman can gain after having a kid and being married 15 years, and not be fat but think she is – but no other women would think so. (Because his wife is not fat.) I don’t know the rules on this.

My critique partners do, though.

So I ask for input on things, and as a result my critique partners feel more open to guide me when I get off course.

Remember, I had to talk about “shooting” himself in the eye while masturbating. These ladies helped me write it so it would be funny and not offend women. Prior to that, they were advising me that Mattie on her period wouldn’t go to bed without underwear. When I changed that, and had her not be on her period, I got a few thank you’s – not because we couldn’t go there, but because it didn’t work. We want truth in our stories. And I wanted Mattie bottomless for the joke that came later.

Your character can’t be Clint Eastwood and Alan Alda, but he can start out more like Clint and end up more like Alan over the course of the story.

When the Zombie Guy meets the kid, he doesn’t act like he cares about her, but I was thinking he would after a while. That they’d become buddies. To do that, the author can have her trying to learn to be tough from him, and have him learning how to be soft from her. Or something. Have her ask him the questions the women critique partners are asking, and have him not have answers, then reflect on it.

You can add these things later, after you have the whole story written, but you can add them now. I’d do it now because you want to learn. Future chapters – and future stories – will benefit from that education.

Ask friends and critique partners for examples of ways to do it. It will be a sentence here and there, trust me. Like adding a few drops of cream turns coffee from black to beige. It doesn’t take much.

Without doing some of that, your characters may be too 2-dimensional.

How do you know who to ask?

When I get critiques, I turn around and read what that person writes. Do I understand and appreciate their writing? Do they see things how I do? Can I learn from them?

They can say whatever they want, but if I think their writing sucks, they don’t get much attention from then on. I like lots of my critique partners’ writing, but I explore each one. When you do that, see if you can spot the emotional reveal areas, and emulate a paragraph here and there. Adapt it. See how it fits with your characters. You’ll get there.

Ask for that help.

Ask for areas where it would occur and ask them to please give example of what might be said or done.

They’ll do it.

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Carrrying that computer around makes him look like he knows something, doesn't it?
Carrrying that computer around makes him look like he knows something, doesn’t it?

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi” – yeah, we know. We’re trying to convince him to change that title – check out his other works here and check back often for interesting stuff.

Published by Dan Alatorre AUTHOR

USA Today bestselling author Dan Alatorre has 50+ titles published in more than 120 countries and over a dozen languages.

12 thoughts on “The Real F word: Writing FEELINGs Into Your Characters

  1. You quoted yourself! Ha!
    You know I tend to be an emotionless robot, so I have to count on others to tell me when a character’s reaction doesn’t “ring true”. It’s a necessary part of the process.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Also, it’s very astute to identify your areas for improvement and let others guide you. It requires the talent to see it, the humility to accept it, the humbleness to allow others to teach you, and the skill to learn it and do it. That’s a lot. Most people aren’t that committed – and it shows in their work.


  2. This topic hits near to my heart, since I LOVE emotion. As a reader, I feel cheated and disconnected from a story when that key ingredient is missing.

    As an author, I try to immerse myself in my characters to feel whatever they would be feeling in each moment and transfer that emotion to the page as I write. Hopefully it comes through…I want my readers to have a strong connection to my characters and share in what they are experiencing.

    I do occasionally struggle with getting the emotions, and how they express them, right for my male characters. But, I’m lucky to have a really good (male) author friend who’s always willing to help me figure it out.

    BTW…quoting yourself is very “you”. I almost didn’t even give it a second thought. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really am of two minds on it.

      I feel like, just write the scene and feel free to go back and add whatever’s needed, especially if readers don’t get the whole point. I also feel like you can take the time up front and put as much in as needed and then some, so you can scale it back if necessary.

      I can say this: I’m not often told I need less emotion from a character. So I lean towards the overdo it aspect.

      For newer authors, here’s my process, more or less, for this aspect of writing: I do a draft that’s just lines of dialog and scant notes, like stage directions. Then I build it out with the quotation marks and descriptions. That’s what I’d call my first draft, or near it. Then I start over at the top and read every word, seeing what reads as smooth and what reads as odd, and where additional “beats” are needed, or descriptive pauses, etc..

      Then I look at it as a reader, as best I can, only stopping when something un-immerses me from the story. That happens for a reason, so I address it.

      Then, in that process, or on the next pass if there was a lot of touch up needed, I’m also half-reading as a reader and half-asking myself: is this the fullness of the emotion I intended to paint? If yes, I move on. If not, I address it again or ask for help.

      That’s about where my critique partners get to see it.

      I don’t agonize over stuff much, either. Most of the time the critique partner are seeing a scene that was created the day before. (The exceptions are scenes that are particularly tricky to me, such as some sex scenes lately and some first kiss scenes. Because while I consider myself a romantic guy, writing romance is a skill like anything else. I want it right.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I pretty much take the same approach you do, only it doesn’t come as naturally to me. Hopefully that will improve with time.

    Most often, I hear the dialogue first or see a flash of a scene then build out from there. After several (sometimes agonizing) passes, all from inside my character’s head, I manage to layer in all the other details that will bring the scene to life…but, I’m always thinking about how things “feel.”

    I always go back and read through as a “reader” too–usually the next day, and usually out loud. “Switching hats” really gives you a different perspective on what you’ve just written.

    The problem for me is, when I’m upset or angry about something, I can’t connect with my character, which means I can’t write. So, there is a definite downside to being an emotional writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s probably true of everyone. If we’re upset, it’s hard to turn off that emotion and write – unless we have a character who is going through whatever emotion we’re having. That’s when I open a new page and scribble my emotion out and describe to myself – sometimes not even in real words – that feeling as best I can. Then when I have a character needing that, I try to use those words to put myself in that mood and feel what I felt, getting it onto the page for the character that way.

    Liked by 1 person

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