So, over the last few days, I've been doing a lot of thinking (and blog searching). I've finally figured out why I love Avatar so much: I genuinely sympathized with the characters. After a little more reflection, I realized that the scenes I was most invested in and remembered the most (thank you David Powers King for putting me on the right track here) are the ones where characters show genuine emotion. When the characters showed strong emotion for a good reason, I was right there with them.
Now, I need to clarify the difference between emotion and sentimentality. Emotion is a natural human feeling or reaction to circumstance. It's something that everyone experiences and deals with in some way (even those who profess to be unemotional; they're just dealing with the emotions by shoving them aside and ignoring them). Sentimentality, on the other hand, is affected by the author; it's forced, false and often excessive. An old professor of mine put it this way: emotion arises naturally from circumstances that are critical to the story and help show or mold a character's personality; sentimentality is there for no other reason than to make the reader feel a certain way (i.e. it doesn't advance the story or develop the character.
Here's my take on writing real emotion (or a precis of it):
- Genuine emotion arises when you put a nice guy through the ringer. Guilt, broken hearts, conflicting desires and the like might sound formulaic, but they are some of the most common sources of strong emotion in real life.
- An emotional response MUST be consistent with the character. If a character reacts in an uncharacteristic way, readers will notice and they will not approve.
- Caveat: a character may struggle with an emotional reaction that conflicts with his/her morals. For example, a person who is normally compassionate and forgiving may struggle with a desire for revenge. This sets up an excruciating conflict for the character that most people can relate to.
- Emotional situations are amplified when the character has something to lose (or possibly gain). Make the decision/reaction a critical one.