Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, screenplays or poetry, the role of emotion in character expression can make or break your writing. It's woven together with that most-feared and most-hated and most-important advice to show, don't tell... but how? How do we SHOW a character's emotion? That was the starting point for Angela Ackerman, a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, and its many sequels. Available in eight languages, her guides are sourced by US universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this book collection has sold over half a million copies. Angela is our guest for this episode of The Empowered Author Podcast.Support the show
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Introduction (various voices) 00:03
Welcome to the Empowered Author podcast.
Discussion tips, insights and advice from those who’ve been there, done that, helping you write, publish and market your nonfiction book.
Being an author is something that you’ve got to take seriously.
I’m proud I’ve written a book.
What does the reader need, first? What does the reader need, second?
What happens if you start writing your book before you identify your “why”? What’s the problem that? You’re an indie author, you take the risk; you reap the rewards. You are in charge of the decisions. You’re the head of that business.
Every emotion you’re feeling when you’re writing is felt by every other writer.
The Empowered Author podcast. Your podcast hosts are Boni and John Wagner-Stafford of Ingenium Books.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 00:53
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, screenplays, or poetry, the role of emotion in character expression can make or break your writing. It’s woven together with that most feared and most hated and most important advice: to show, don’t tell. But how? How do we show a character’s emotion? That was the starting point for Angela Ackerman, who is a writing coach, international speaker and co-author of the bestselling book “The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression” and its many sequels. Available in eight languages, her guides are sourced by U.S. universities, recommended by agents and editors and are used by novelists, screenwriters and psychologists around the world. And if that isn’t enough, to date, this book collection has sold over half a million copies. And Angela joins me today. Now I need to – I had this thing with the pronunciation of thesaurus, when I started out joking about the pronunciation and it stopped. So I pronounce it wrong all the time. Thesaurus.
Angela Ackerman 02:01
It’s all good. It’s all good. The most common question I get about the name is, is it thesauruses or is it thesauri? When you’re talking about the collective and it’s actually – you can use either, so nobody’s ever wrong. It’s all good.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 02:18
Thesauri? I love it. Maybe that’ll help me pronounce it correctly. My husband was joking, “Are you going to pronounce it wrong on the podcast?” I said, “Yeah, probably.”
Angela Ackerman 02:26
It’s all good.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 02:27
But anyway, welcome. Thanks for joining us, Angela.
Angela Ackerman 02:28
Oh, thanks for having me. It’s always nice to meet people, like see people – especially these days – so …
Boni Wagner-Stafford 02:36
Right. Exactly, exactly. So one of the things I wanted to dig into a little bit was how you got started with the notion of thesauri for writers, and in particular, on the topic of emotion? You come from a fiction writing background. That’s quite a switch to turn to nonfiction for authors.
Angela Ackerman 02:56
Yeah. So yes, it’s true. I mean, Becca and I – my co-author – you know, we both wrote fiction when we started out. We met on a site called the Critique Circle. And we both posted our work for critique and kind of worked on each other’s stuff and really sort of fell in love with what the other – the other person’s voice and how they wrote. And we just kind of discovered that we and several people on the site, we all had sort of the same struggle with our characters: they were always rolling their eyes or shrugging or putting their hands in their pocket or … And it just, it made us feel like our writing was really, it was sort of draining the life out of it, because we were repeating ourselves. And we were really struggling to, you know – how can we vividly involve readers in this emotional experience versus stick to the same old, same old sort of, you know, cues that we use as far as emotional expression goes? And so Becca and I had talked about it and she had started creating these, creating notes basically, on different emotions, ideas that would occur to her, you know, and so she had sort of started to gather lists. And so we decided to start working on this as a group- There were maybe – I don’t know, four or five of us that were kind of looking at, okay, if we look at fear, what are all the different things that a person’s body does when they feel fear? And what do their thought processes look like? And what are the visceral sensations? And, you know, how do you tell what someone’s feeling through their voice? If they’re afraid, what is that going to sound like? And so we started sort of creating these lists and Becca and I kind of, you know, we decided, “Okay, I think that there’s really something here and we really should, you know, take this to the next level.” And so, we started creating these lists on our blog: “The Bookshelf News”, it was called back then. And we would just sort of every week we would take a, you know, an emotion and we would cover it as well as we could and it was interesting because Becca and I, we knew that we had the struggle. And like I said, there were a few other people on this site that also had the same struggle. But it wasn’t until we started blogging these lists that we started to realize how many people struggled with writing emotion. And they just, they became very popular, we had people requesting, you know, “Can you do this emotion or that emotion?” And so, you know, it was just – it was kind of a lot of fun to just really dig into specific emotions and think about how, as human beings, we tend to express these things. So that’s kind of what started it all. And we called a thesaurus because it was kind of a – it was a creative, a creative take on what a thesaurus actually is. You know, thesauruses are more about the words themselves but this is really about ideas. And so, you know, it’s a thesaurus in the sense that we’re taking a creative idea about how to express something or, you know, some of our other ones on setting or personality, but we look at a very specific topic and we think of all the ways that we can show that thing. Because at the end of the day, it is all about show, don’t tell.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 06:03
Well, exactly. And so as I was – I was thinking about this, it’s – my question is why emotion? So that’s where you started – we’ll dig into some of those other topics in a moment – but why emotion? And one of the first answers is, is because reading – whether it’s actually fiction or nonfiction and maybe with the possible exception of if you’re reading a business book or something that’s very practical, how to – but it is an emotional exercise, first and foremost, and an intellectual exercise after that. And so if we want to have an emotional engagement with our readers, we have to be able to dig into emotions. So the question for you is, identifying the emotions, and the way we respond to them is often the first challenge. Because we spend so much of our lives ignoring the emotion; willing it away, you know; turning the other cheek. All of a sudden, we have to be hyper aware.
Angela Ackerman 07:25
Well, it is interesting with our characters. I mean, it’s – and this is why, at the basis of being able to write emotion well, you really need to understand your character really well. Because we’re all individuals; we’ve all had different experiences; we’ve grown up different ways. We’ve been taught different things about emotion and what is okay to express and what isn’t. We all have different emotional sensitivities based on the things that have happened to us in the past, where certain emotions make us feel vulnerable so where there’s more of a tendency to sort of try to hide those emotions. And our characters are going to be the most engaging and compelling and have the best chance of connecting with readers if they feel authentic, if they’re true to life, if there’s if they’re as most like real people as they possibly can be. And so it means that when we’re thinking about emotion or when we’re thinking about any aspect of our characters’ behaviour in the story, we really need to think about, “Who is my character and what made them that way?” Because then we can write them in a way where their emotional reactions are going to line up with who they are and what those sensitivities are and how they feel vulnerable and what their comfort zone is: some people are very comfortable expressing their emotions, you know. They can walk up to a stranger and just start talking about stuff and like, you’re kind of like, “Wow, that’s a lot of detail.” And then other people are the opposite, you know: they’re very – they’re a closed book. It takes a lot to sort of pull up pull information from them. You know, certain things they may become very animated about but other things, they’re kind of a little bit more low key, less movement. And our characters will be the same way. So really understanding, you know, what is that person’s emotional range, what is their comfort zone, you know, all of those things go into writing that – getting that emotion on the page in a way that just rings true to readers.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 09:19
Was there anything that surprised you in the course of pulling the material together? Or publishing the books? Anything that you had to learn or do differently?
Angela Ackerman 09:36
Do you mean from like, an audience perspective of how stuff was received? Or do you mean things that we – Becca and I – learned ourselves about …?
Boni Wagner-Stafford 09:45
Yeah, the things Becca and you learned yourselves and with respect to the, that issue of emotion.
Angela Ackerman 09:52
I think the most interesting thing about this whole process and for some thesauruses more than others was just what we learned about ourselves in the process. Because at the root of everything that we do, to do with characters, is human psychology. So you can’t help but not delve into your own, you know, baggage, I guess, in a way. And your own understanding of why you do the things you do and how the way you grew up and the people that were around you and the people that influenced your life, how that helped shape you and shape how you behave. And so it really, it was interesting, because like I say, some thesauruses more than others but anything to do with personality, emotion, emotional wounds specifically, really caused you to think about why you behave the way you do in different circumstances. And, you know, why do you – why are certain emotions triggered, you know, for you? And why do you feel defensive in certain situations? And it really sort of caused us to dig into the why behind the things that we do. So that has probably been the most interesting thing about this. But it’s all stuff that again, it’s valuable, because the more we understand about human behaviour and how it affects us as people, the more we can put that into our writing and we can build characters that are just, wow, they feel so authentic because they’re so well rounded. And, you know, we’re not just throwing stuff on the page about them because it’s kind of interesting or, “Hey, this might be neat”; we actually understand, you know, why our characters are doing the things that they do. And I think that that’s what really resonates with readers is when they come across a character who is a lot like them, you know: they have similar worries and concerns and they feel vulnerable and they struggle. And you know, readers, when they connect, when they connect with a character that feels a lot like them, it really resonates: it pulls them into the story. It pulls them into that character’s experience a lot more. And it just brings them closer to what’s happening.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 11:58
Right. My first introduction to your series was actually “The Emotional Wound Thesaurus” and I was – I have a, you know, I’m a nonfiction person. But I do have a kind of a fiction based on a true story. That’s been a work in progress for way too long. You’re probably familiar with that notion. But it was based on my grandfather’s escape from Lenin-era Russia and the persecution of the Germans in the Volga region. And I was – his story is fascinating but I found that I wasn’t really able to make the connection, like what was the emotional impact of watching his younger brother get shot in his yard by soldiers? You know, all that kind of stuff. So “The Emotional Wound Thesaurus” was very helpful that way. Can you talk a little bit about what the other thesauruses are? You’ve got eight of them, the emotional one, “The Emotional Wound Thesaurus” – what are some of the other ones?
Angela Ackerman 13:09
So we also have two books on setting. Because again, all of our books have a very common thread through them all and it’s really about crafting realistic writing and involving the reader, which is all about show, don’t tell. So our mission with all of these books that we create is just helping writers maximize every detail that goes into their storytelling. So thinking harder about those details to make sure that they’re doing more for the story. So for setting, you know, obviously, we want to make sure that we are incorporating sensory detail. And as writers we tend to write what the character sees and we forget about, you know, the sounds, the smells. But these things can all tie into the character’s memory; it can – and the reader’s memory as well. It can evoke different emotions in the reader. You can build mood through these things. You can trigger your character’s emotions in a way that, you know, something that they experience in one of the settings might be something that triggers a memory from a past event – like an emotional wound – and just make that scene so much stronger and more of an experience for readers. But in addition to sensory detail, we want to think carefully about what settings we’re using. This is another area where it’s really easy for us to just go, “Okay, well, I need this dialogue scene to happen between these two people.” So you know what, they’re at school, they’re in a hallway, whatever. You just pick something generic. But the thing is, is if you think more carefully about where something happens, you can front load your scene with, again, symbolism, mood, atmosphere, to create a tuning fork for the emotions that are going to happen in that scene. You know, just think about light and shadow, for example: I mean, you can have two different, completely different feelings happen in a setting just based on whether it’s evening or daytime. And weather is another element where, you know, we definitely – it affects our mood. It affects our emotions. You know, a lot of the weather, you know, we plan our day around the weather; it can cause complications for us. You know, it can ruin our day; it can cause conflict. And so we can incorporate this idea into the storytelling as well. So weather is another thesaurus that we have. We also have one on symbolism, we have two on character traits – looking at the positive side of a character’s personality and the negative side, because both are important for characters. Again, writers, we tend to – you know, we love our protagonist and we think of all the nice things about them but we really need to plan what their flaws are, what the darker side of the personality is, because these flaws will indicate some of the things that the character will need to overcome in the story if they want to succeed. Because flaws are things that we as people and our characters will use to kind of protect us from people in situations that have hurt us in the past. But if your character wants to succeed and they’re on a character arc, chances are there’s something that they need to change about themselves and let go of in order to become someone more informed or someone more confident or stronger in order to achieve the goal. And that usually is tied to flawed behaviour. So this is, again, just an area that that we can use in storytelling. So I’m trying to think what other ones do we have. We don’t – not all of these are books, by the way. Becca and I have actually created – we’re on our 17th thesaurus.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 16:51
Oh my God!
Angela Ackerman 16:52
Yeah, some of them are more – work better for books than others. But as well, like just so much work goes into turning these into books that we can only do so much at once. So right now we’re working on a conflict thesaurus and a relationship thesaurus. We also have something called “Emotion Amplifiers”, which are tied to emotions but they’re more states of being instead of actual emotion. So an example of an amplifier would be something like stress, pain, hot, cold, hunger, thirst: those sort of things. And they’re often are confused with emotions because they have a lot of influence over emotion. If your character’s in pain or they’re really stressed out or they’re sick, chances are, they’re going to make a lot more reactive -type decisions. And whatever emotion they feel, it’s going to kind of amplify it. And amplifiers are really great for when you want to create conflict. Because like I say, if your character is in pain – you know, think about us when we’re in pain: we’re not in a good mood; we tend to be very snappy; you know, we don’t always make the best decisions; it’s really easy to make mistakes. And so it’s a really great way to sort of create these missteps and create conflict and tension in the story.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 18:11
Yeah. You come from a fiction background: many of these things are very applicable, obviously, to a fiction author’s creative journey. How do you see these benefiting the nonfiction author as well?
Angela Ackerman 18:30
Well, I think that – I think all story, even if you’re writing a book that’s really a how-to informational type book, you’re still having a conversation with the reader and you’re still creating analogies; you’re still weaving in some storytelling; you’re trying to take information and present it in a way that they can understand it, especially if it’s something that they’re trying to learn. So, you know, I think a lot of a lot of books, they do have that element to them where there is some of that storytelling, where there is that relatability where you want them to – you know, you’re basically saying, “Look, I understand the struggles that you have. And you know, this is what I do,” or, “This is a situation that I’ve been in. This is how this particular thing can help you.” And so there’s a certain amount of that in a lot of nonfiction books. Obviously this is much more applicable to someone who is writing fiction or a screenwriter or someone who is looking more at the storytelling aspect.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 19:38
Memoir, I was thinking, is, you know, kind of almost has a foot in both camps: you’re trying to write in a way that’s almost like fiction about a true series of events. And often we include characters from our own past, and I would, I think – I’m certain, in fact – that many of your thesauri would help the memoirist think about who that real character is. And you know, the character traits – positive and negative: it might be somebody that did something very damaging or hurtful or harmful. It’s easy to think that that person is all full of negative traits, when in fact, it’s not true. So I think that would be – I think that’s really, really helpful for folks. I wanted to inquire about the translation and the cover designs: I saw one of your Facebook posts recently talked about one of your books – I forget which one – just coming out in Russia and there’s a new cover and, you know, translation. And so, you know, I think that’s a, that’s something many authors think: “Oh, I want my book to be translated into how many languages.” Tell me about that process: is it as easy as you want it to be? What are some of the – what are some of the things you need to consider?
Angela Ackerman 20:59
In our case – I mean, you’ve got different routes for translation, especially if you’re a self-published author like Becca and I are: you can definitely seek out a translator yourself and, you know, create a partnership with them where you know, you get them to go over your story and translate it for you. One of the challenges, I think, is when you’re translating into other languages, it’s really hard to market your book; it’s hard to market and promote. Which is one reason why it can be good to sell your rights to a publisher because then they’re more – you know, they have that direct channel to your audience in that language. And, you know, they can do some of the marketing for you. In our case, that’s what we do, is we have a foreign rights agent. And so they work directly with sub agents in different countries. And those sub agents work on behalf of basically connecting people’s books to the right publisher. And they’re kind of a go-between with the language barrier and stuff like that. And so, you know, it is really neat to see your books, re-envisioned in a different language: the covers are always fun because you don’t know what they’re going to be like. And they’re often, you know, not what you expect at all. I mean, with ours, I think the main thread that we see with all of them is that there’s symbolism on the covers. You know, whatever it’s about, there’s some sort of symbolism that sort of ties into that. But we’re nonfiction too. So I think ours will be just maybe a little bit different than someone who’s – has a fiction book and they’re getting that translated. But while it is challenging, sometimes, to sort of, you know, market your book in other languages, I did learn a few tricks: if you can figure out what your – what hashtags would be in different languages, you can set up columns for those hashtags. And if you’re using something like TweetDeck and anytime that hashtag is mentioned – or if you can find the name of your book in that other language – you can put that up there and it will track every time that it’s mentioned. And so you can actually see when users are finding your books, when they’re posting pictures of them in the bookstore or they’re recommending them to other people. And the neat thing about a tool like TweetDeck is it has a translation feature on it. So I can translate someone else’s tweet in Japanese, let’s say. And I can actually sort of cobble together what they’ve said about the book. And then I can respond in English and they can use the translation feature to see what it is that I’m saying to them. And so there is a way to sort of, you know, to have some back and forth if there is a language barrier, which can be, which can be fun. And it’s just, it’s also very interesting to me to see what books are popular in different countries. And sometimes what’s really popular in another country is not the same as North America. So for example, one place that our books do quite well is over in Japan. And in Japan, the most popular book that we have is “The Setting Thesaurus”. And what they did over there is they took both copies of “The Setting Thesaurus” – because we have two volumes, just because it’s such a huge topic and there’s just so – I think there’s 150 settings or 130 settings in the books: I’m not sure; I’d have to look. But anyway, they put it all in one volume. And over in North America, the “Setting Thesaurus” books are actually one of the lower sellers. But over in Japan, it’s the most popular seller. And what we observed is just people really are fascinated to understand more about North America settings: like we’ll see people that are writers using it but also people that are just interested about North America, buying the book to kind of get an idea of what different places are like. We see a lot of people that write anime or people who design games, a lot of them are using those guides and things like that. So it’s just, it’s sort of interesting to see how a book is being used in other cultures.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 25:25
Angela Ackerman 25:26
Yeah, just interesting.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 25:27
Fascinating. Super fun. I wanted to chat a little bit as well – we didn’t mention this so far at all but you’re also running the site “Writers Helping Writers”, which is such a fantastic way to give back. If I’m going to honour our 30-minute timeline, we’ve got about five minutes left. You want to tell me what, tell me what, what you’re doing at “Writers Helping Writers” and how that got started?
Angela Ackerman 25:58
Well, Becca and I actually have two different sites that we have: we have “Writers Helping Writers” – which is our blog – and our main website for, you know, basically, anything that you want to learn at all about writing. All of our articles: we’ve been doing this now for over 10 years. Our blog used to be called “The Bookshelf News” and that’s how we started it. But in 2013, we rebranded ourselves as “Writers Helping Writers” because that’s really what our – that’s what we’re all about. That’s what we do. That’s what we love. And we love helping writers. And so that’s our site that we do that. And then we also have another site called “One Stop For Writers”, which is writing software. And so it’s a subscription site where you can – all of our thesauruses are there. So I mentioned that we, you know, we have eight volumes but all of the thesauruses that we create are all part of a single database over at “One Stop For Writers”. But we also create a lot of different tools for writers, just to sort of, as you know, I mean, there’s a lot of – there’s a lot of pieces to manage when you’re writing a story. There’s a lot of different aspects that we have to really understand in depth and do really well. And so, Becca and I have kind of made it our mission at “One Stop For Writers” to shorten the learning curve for people by creating tools that help them with specific elements of storytelling. So story structure, character building: you know, we have timeline tools and different – just many different tools to help with world building or whatever it is that you need to do as writers. So it’s kind of just a – we love creating books and tools that help writers and we’d like doing things in a different way, which is one reason why I think our thesaurus books have really resonated, is they’re not true writing guides: they’re part writing guide and part tool. And so, you know, we just – Becca and I just have a lot of ideas on how to help writers. And that’s kind of the site where we get to do that.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 27:53
You guys are epitomizing the – you know, people may have this concept, “Oh, you’re an author or you’re a writer,” and this concept of you know, somebody sitting in a cave and doing nothing but typing away and, you know, creating these strings of, of text, which is far from the truth. And it sounds like you’ve got many things that you’re working on and having to work on and think about that really have very little to do with writing except to supporting a business around that.
Angela Ackerman 28:20
Well, we definitely have had to take a break from our own fiction. Just because, you know, when these books took off and we really started thinking, “Okay, how can we help writers more? Like how can we make this easier?”, because the reality is, is – you kind of touched on something that’s very true: a lot of people sort of assume that writers are just magical beings and they have this talent and I don’t know, there’s like a light shaft and, and then suddenly, the story is all there. But as we know, like, there is a lot of craft and there is a lot of work behind a story. And there’s so much that people don’t understand. And I feel like, in some ways, writers aren’t supported as well as they can be because there is this idea that you just either have the talent or you don’t. And there’s a lot of craft behind it. And so we’re really, you know, we have doubled, tripled quadrupled down on the idea of we want to make writing easier. And how can we do that? We want to support writers so that, you know, that it just, every piece of the puzzle that they have to learn in order to write this great story is easier. And yeah, that’s just kind of our passion. So we’re putting our fiction on hold but we really love what we do. It’s very, very rewarding to help other writers get those stories on the page.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 29:40
Excellent. Thank you. It sounds like we could have a whole different conversation about the business of respecting the writer’s creative craft from a copyright, sociological, fiscal, financial, income, economic, all those kinds of things, but so we’ll put that idea out there. I will talk about that another time. But Angela, thank you so much for taking the time. I’m going to – in the show notes, I’m going to include links to your “One Stop For Writers” site, your “Writers Helping Writers” and when – we’ll tag you on social media when we publish the blog and that sort of thing, but thank you, thank you so much for joining us.
Angela Ackerman 30:24
Thanks for having me. Never takes – never takes much to get Angela talking about writing.
Boni Wagner-Stafford 30:30
Angela Ackerman 30:33
Boni Wagner-Stafford 30:34
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