This one is a little unusual for me, so buckle up!
If you have read The Militiaman, you know it involves things like offworld travel and deadly, mysterious enemies. It’s not as if I, personally, know what it’s like to experience those things. Some common advice is to put yourself in the shoes of a character and imagine how you would feel in that situation. That can be sound advice, but consider that each character is unique and has their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences that inform their reactions. The same event could cause different reactions, ranging from calm indifference, to existential panic, to unbridled rage. It all depends on the specific character.
When I’m writing, once I have decided how a particular character will react to a situation, I have to describe it. Knowing how someone will react is the easy part. I don’t necessarily have the words to describe it right away, and therein lies the difficulty. Other writers will tell you that they experience this, too: it is often necessary to stimulate the emotions you need in yourself. You could think of it as a form of mindfulness in which you direct your own thoughts and feelings to a specific place, then dwell in it for a while. Maybe it’s profound sadness, or intense anger, or exquisite joy. Maybe it’s the passion you feel for a lover, or the grief you would suffer at their loss. In order to describe these things, it’s necessary to feel them, and it turns out to be an essential skill of creative writing to be able to push yourself into these emotional states and then extract meaning and words from them.
Sometimes, it works the other way around–in fact, that can be easier. There are times when I am a volatile mix of certain emotions and I want to fixate on them, not to be self-indulgent, but to capture those feelings as words assigned to a particular character in a relevant situation.
Both are interesting processes, to me. They can also be extremely exhausting. A particularly intense, emotionally charged passage can leave me feeling wiped out, even depressed. But there are other times when it’s downright therapeutic. These are the times when I have gone into a writing session feeling various uncertain, uncomfortable emotions, and have harnessed them to imbue a scene and its characters. I can feel better after that–tired from the exertion, but having processed those feelings in my own way, albeit via fictional characters.
This is one of the harder parts of writing stories, as readers know when an emotion rings true and when it comes off as stilted or unbelievable. I try very hard to do this well, to stimulate the emotions I need to feel for a scene, or to grab onto my own existing feelings and express them through appropriate characters and scenes. There have been times when I have deeply upset myself with the decisions I have had to make, and the effects they have had on characters. These people are quite real to me, after all, since they live in my mind and have stayed with me for many years. They are like old friends, and being responsible for bad things happening to them isn’t exactly fun, though of course it’s necessary for the sake of a story.
What I ultimately hope is that the thoughts and feelings of my characters resonate with readers–that even if you can’t relate to what a character does or feels, you can at least understand it, that it feels true and authentic to you. As the Totality series expands, bringing with it more characters and more unusual and tense situations, I hope those human connections are never lost, that they always make up the emotional and thematic core of the story.