Playing Games With Your Characters’ Emotional Spaces by Wyatt Bessing

Spiral Manuscripts TechniqueWelcome back to our monthly columnist, Wyatt Bessing. A writing coach, teacher and author, as he shares with us “Playing Games With Your Characters’ Emotional Spaces.” Enjoy!


There are multiple kinds of truth, in fiction as in life. As fiction writers, we move as close to the truth as possible without ever quite veering into truth entirely (otherwise we’d be writing nonfiction). One kind of truth emanates from a realism of scene and detail. By identifying with familiar settings and character traits, readers are pulled into a story and become personally attached to it. Another kind of truth, closely aligned to the first, is emotional truth. To be emotionally true, a character’s actions must resonate as honest and believable to the reader. This brings the reader emotionally into the story. Both kinds of truth are equally important. The best writers write from deep, personal emotions as they bring their readers into a realistic place with specific details.

In this month’s exercise, I’ll show you one way to expand a scene in your Work-in-Progress by adding setting detail while simultaneously deepening emotional connection. You’re going to be choosing a scene of conflict between two or more characters, but you’ll be recasting the setting for the scene to strengthen the emotional and physical impact of the scene. This need not be your climactic scene or even an enormous fight, but simply a moment in which your protagonist wants something, and someone else stands in his or her way.

This conflict shouldn’t be difficult to find, since pretty much every scene you write needs a conflict of some kind. How does your main character make choices in each scene to get what he or she wants? For example, in one of my unfinished novels, my protagonist believes his brother may be leading dangerous wilderness tours. Even when he doesn’t confront his brother directly about this belief, he is in conflict with himself as he struggles with his warring senses of family loyalty and comfort on one hand, ethics and fear on the other.

To play this game, find a scene in your work-in-progress where the conflict doesn’t feel strong enough, or the setting or characters are unbelievable. Your protagonist has a conflict with another person – this can be overt, a physical conflict or fight; or it could be simply a disagreement or difference in perspective. But maybe the conflict feels bland or ambiguous or just not quite sharp enough. Maybe the scene disappears around them as they argue. This exercise will both sharpen the honesty of the emotions of the characters and bring out the setting to make it come to life.

Grab a six-sided die. Roll it and consult the following chart. Write 500 words using this setting, giving specific names of animals, plants, places, and people as much as possible. In between dialogue, let the scene unfold around your characters. Now the reader sees not only how the characters interact with one another, but how the world around them impacts them. Are they impatient with the busy waiter? Distracted by the birds in the garden as they build a fence? Also, make sure the reader can clearly understand the position of each character and how and why they disagree.

  1. Building something together
  2. Restaurant
  3. In the gym
  4. In a parking lot
  5. Underground (tomb, subway, etc.)
  6. On a plane or other vehicle

For extra emotional depth, choose a setting that either complements or contrasts with the nature of the argument in some way. For example, a couple argues about the rough patches in their relationship as they sand and refinish a room together. Or, for a bit of contrast, perhaps two serial killers argue about the best way to do a job as they sit in a swanky outdoor cafe.

I roll a 1. Building something together. Here’s a fragment of my scene:

“We need to talk, Michael,” said Joan as she scraped a black spot of desiccated carpet glue off the floor.

Michael wrenched out a tack with the claw of his hammer. “Oh, yeah?” he said.

“Yeah, what are we building here?” she said.

He was silent. The locust tree outside the window shifted in the breeze, one sharp branch scraping against the glass as its shadow cooled the room. 

“A floor, right now,” he said. “Let’s focus on this moment. Can you hand me that box of nails?”

“No, dammit. I’ll give you the nails when you give me an answer. Where have you been going in the middle of the night?” She pushed harder with her scraper, gouging the floor a little. “What are all these black spots! It’s like an oil rig exploded in here.”

Michael sighed, and his pile of paint scrapings got caught up in the gust of breath. The powder rose in a light cloud between them. “It’s going to be alright,” he said. “I just need my space sometimes. I go walking at night.”

Have fun playing with your characters’ conflicts while keeping the reader grounded in a realistic place. If your first roll doesn’t fit, roll again. Keep writing, keep exploring, and dive deeper. How close can you get to the truth of your scenes and characters?

Write boldly into those emotional places, and your reader will follow you.




Wyatt Bessing is a writer, writing coach, and learning specialist. His stories and essays have appeared in, Outsider Ink, national educational assessment materials, and in the anthology Dance, Human Rights, and Social Justice. Through his workshops, website, and blog at, he guides new and experienced writers in crafting more effective, expressive, and striking work. During the day, he works at Star Academy in San Rafael, teaching reading and comprehension skills to students with learning differences in elementary through high school. He lives in Santa Rosa, CA with his wonderful fiancee and co-creator, Sarah Laugtug.

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