The Emotionally Engaging Character: Tapping into Sorrow

I’m going to give an example of how you can tap into a specific emotion when you’re writing in your character’s point of view.  The emotion I’ve picked is sorrow.


The important thing to remember in all of this is that the character needs to bring you to the emotion.  You don’t bring the emotion to your character.  There’s a subtle difference between the two approaches.

In the first approach, the character is the one in charge.  Everything you write stems from what the character reveals to you as you’re writing the story.  The character is free to be who they truly are, without any restraints from you.

In the second approach, you are telling the character what they should be feeling and how they should react based on that feeling.  You are the one leading the story, not the character.

The emotionally engaging character is the one in full control of the story.  The character sets the tone for everything, and you are simply there to record what is happening.  To me, this is the most effective way of bringing your reader into the story.

Keep that in mind as you delve into tools that can help you convey what the character is thinking and feeling.

So let’s look at sorrow.  If you’re having trouble coming up with things to help show the reader this emotion, I suggest sitting down ahead of time to write out possible thoughts and actions that usually coincide with sorrow.  If you need inspiration, I recommend watching a sad scene from a movie, reading a sad scene from a book, or listening to a sad song.  It has to be one that brings you down to the pit of despair.  Unless you can go into the very depths of sorrow, you won’t be able to connect with the character who is going through it.

As a quick example, let’s say you wrote out this ahead of time:


  • Possible actions – cry, gulp, sigh in despair, shoulders slump
  • Possible thoughts – “Why wasn’t I watching where I was going?” “All I wanted to do was give you the perfect day” “What’s the point in trying when I keep failing?””Please don’t leave me.” “How am I going to tell him/her the bad news?”

Now let’s say, you’re writing your story.  The father was taking his son to the park when he got into a car accident.  The son ended up in the hospital and the doctor’s prognosis isn’t good.  If you’re struggling to come up adequate ways of describing his pain, you can refer to the list above to help get things going.

Sam squeezed Jesse’s hand, but the fragile hand of his four year old was still limp.  He swallowed the lump in his throat.  How could  a simple trip to the park end up so badly?  If only he hadn’t been trying to text his boss he’d have the work done by Monday morning…  Maybe he would have seen the driver zoom right through the stop sign in time to stop.

“I’m sorry, Jesse,” he whispered, his voice cracking.  He blinked back his tears and waited until he could talk without breaking down completely before he continued.  “All I wanted to do was give you a perfect day, and I ruined it.  Just like I ruin everything.”

The snippet above did go differently than I originally thought it would when I started it.  Originally, Sam was supposed to be outside the room, watching Jesse through the window as the doctors worked on him.  I had pictured Sam as one of those uninvolved fathers who felt obligated to take his son out to the park because his ex-wife was nagging him about not spending any time with his son (hence the text to his boss).

But then Sam decided he wanted to be an involved parent who is still married, and (though I didn’t have time to put it in) his wife is on a business trip so she can’t be there at the moment.  Though, the last sentence does suggest there are marital problems, which would be further explored if I were to continue writing Sam’s story.

Also, Jesse was originally eight, not four.

So the character (Sam) told me what he wanted, and I just went with it.  For me, writing in the character’s point of view and letting the character lead me works like this.  It’s why I don’t plot.  I can’t.

This method won’t work for everyone.  I don’t believe there is any one method that fits all writers.  This is just one idea for anyone who is struggling to write an emotionally engaging character.

If you have more ideas, feel free to mention them.  I think like a panster, not a plotter.  I don’t sit down and write out actions and thoughts ahead of time for a scene.  I listen to music that fits that scene and let things evolve as they will.  I honestly don’t know how to explain how to do that, so I’m hoping the one I did above is better. 🙂

About Ruth Ann Nordin

Ruth Ann Nordin mainly writes historical western romances and Regencies. From time to time, she branches out to other genres, but her first love is historical romance. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband and a couple of children. To find out more about her books, go to
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3 Responses to The Emotionally Engaging Character: Tapping into Sorrow

  1. Lorna Faith says:

    So many great thoughts Ruth, on how to tap into your characters emotions. Sorrow is a big one that comes up a bunch with my characters… so this is very helpful. I never thought of writing out possible actions and thoughts ahead of time before digging deeper into the story. That’s a useful tip! Thanks again for writing these blogposts… it has helped so much with writing my stories 😉

    • Thanks! 🙂 I’ve been brainstorming other things to cover, but my mind is still blank. Do you think I did a good enough job on explaining the emotionally engaging character, or is there something else I need to tackle?

      • Lorna Faith says:

        I think you’re doing an amazing job explaining how to write emotionally engaging characters – it’s really helped me a lot as I’m writing my books and I’m sure it’s helped many other fiction writers too 🙂 Thanks for all the work you put into writing these posts Ruth!

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