The Use of Emotion in Storytelling « Official Author Website of Melissa McPhail

The Use of Emotion in Storytelling


I was recently in dialogue with a reader about the use of homoeroticism in my novels. She asked if I had intentionally created a correlation between two homosexual characters (Sandrine du Préc in Cephrael’s Hand and the Prophet Bethamin in Dagger of Adendigaeth) and unethical conduct.

In short, I had not. However, I found the question intriguing. I loved it, actually, because no one had ever asked me this. Nor had I ever looked at these characters from any other point of view—to me, their sexual attractions were just part of their nature, part of who they were, and I had no hidden agenda or statements to make about those choices. Yet, I could see how, by having the only two homosexual characters in the series thus far both be morally corrupt, this might imply some personal viewpoint on the topic.

(In point of fact, they’re both bisexual, but it doesn’t matter for purposes here. Also, while Sandrine certainly has questionable moral standards and could readily be labeled immoral, the Prophet is merely amoral. The difference I see between the two could fill many more pages.)

Nonetheless, I looked deeply at this after my reader’s question. Why had I shown these two characters as homosexual?

My immediate answer: to create an emotional response.

In our society, it’s readily apparent that most people respond to homosexuality on a visceral level. Either they find it secretly erotic or unreasoningly repulsive or some point just shy of one of these extremes. Even those with relatively impassive views on the topic might undergo an involuntary response when experiencing the moment through a viewpoint character’s eyes.

So yes, I consciously determined that Sandrine and the Prophet would have these urges in order to elicit that sense of homoeroticism, or that repulsion against it, in my readers’ experience.

I had to ask myself then: is it fair that I used homoeroticism to engender an emotional response?

Whereupon I thought, this is what writers do.  We tap into the fears, the hopes, and the mutual joys and desolations of life and imbue our characters with these same tribulations in order to produce that harmonic resonance out of the reader’s own experience. How well we do this determines how much our characters are loved or hated. A story that elicits no emotional response is hardly interesting, is it?

Everything we’re trying to do as writers—and what indeed separates a great story from a mundane one—is that emotional impact. Writers will use whatever methods are available to them to do this, and the gamut of choices is wide. The basics of technique certainly play into it—you've got to know passive from active voice and how to arrange a coherent sentence/paragraph/story—but the quality of technique elevates from grammar into craft when you begin looking at the ways a writer elicits an emotional response. Some writers might even be considered unscrupulous in their expert manipulations of our heartstrings, but in the end, if they’ve drawn out our emotions, they’re lauded.

This reminded me of an essay on art that I once read. The author asked, how good does a work of art have to be to be considered art? His answer: technical expertise adequate to produce an emotional impact.

Ultimately this is what I'm trying to do: to introduce you to characters who you can relate to—characters who find purchase in your heart—and to use whatever artistic craft is available to me to make you so invested in these characters' welfare that you cannot stop reading until you know they're safe. And of course, they're rarely so.

In the end, I forgave myself for any unintended aspersions to sexual choice (sorry about that!) and decided that at the very least, I was accomplishing my purpose as a writer in having produced that emotional response one way or another.

I’m open to any thoughts you have on this topic. Share them below! 

10 Responses to “The Use of Emotion in Storytelling”

  1. Micheline Brodeur says:

    I’d already decided that I didn’t like either Sandrine or Bethamin shortly after they were introduced–immoral and amoral people aren’t the types I care to associate with. That the characters also are bisexual isn’t what added to my dislike–it’s how they act with those they are attracted to, how they treat others, that cemented the emotional response in me. As a writer, you are well on your way to being an adept at eliciting emotional responses–keep writing!

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thank you, Micheline. I’m relieved to hear it. 🙂

      You bring up a great point, too. While some may be sensitive to the theme, the message of these characters comes through in how they treat others, not their sexual predilection. This is also something of a relief to me. My purpose in writing is rarely outward-facing toward political or socio-commentary but rather to direct our attention inward towards personal introspection.

  2. Heidi Kemp says:

    So true! My favorite books are those that send me through the greatest variety of emotional tones, and sex is a tried and true button that can be counted on to elicit a response. Of course, the more it is used, the more creative one has to get… or do they? That question you were asked made me think, too. I have no judgment on sexual preferences, but I wondered if the homoeroticism of those scenes struck such a chord because of some buried homophobic tendency I may have. But no, I have to agree with Micheline: it wasn’t the sexuality that was menacing, but those characters’ approach to attraction. They say rape is about control, not sex. Bethamin especially embodied that evil disconnect for me perfectly. What ultimately results from his fascination was deeply emotional for me as a reader, which of course made the book that much better! I love to be appalled, horrified, fearful, agonized, moved and conflicted. So, double bang for the emotional impact buck there! All this to say I applaud your craft and consider you exonerated of any prejudice. 🙂

  3. EW Greenlee says:

    Although I have not read your stories, you have to play to your intended audience. I’m a little older and more conservative in story-telling. I use very little reference to sex in my trilogy and no reference to homosexual relationships. Not because I am homophobic, but because I am a heterosexual and unable to relate to their emotions.

    In my trilogy, I created seven races of mortal beings, four that resemble humans, three that do not. One character, from a race of giants, appear more like docile great apes. I slowly lured the reader to develop a deep affection for him, because of his gentle nature with children and no signs of bigotry, just his willingness to help anyone in need. He is the character we all should seek to be as humans. When he dies, every reader to-date said they cried.

    Striking those deep emotions is what makes the best stories live on in the minds of readers. I recall reading about people spray painting in the NYC substations “He lives!”, a reference to Frodo, surviving the quest to destroy the ring.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  4. Willow says:

    I must admit that I had a very emotional response to both characters, particularly to the Prophet, through your characters’ reaction. I must admit I found Sandrine rather appealing in her utter disregard for anyone else, but the Prophet is utterly terrifying. I also had a rather confused feeling that if the author was homophobic, I could not in all conscience buy her books, warring with the ‘But I really like them!’

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I agree with you completely, Willow. A good story well told should be a sounding-board for multiple ideas and viewpoints, but I think I would be doing all of my readers a disservice if I used my books as a soapbox for my own socio-political views. I realize there’s a fine line between allegory as social commentary and preaching political opinion, but I think I keep to the safe side of that line.

      For me, the study and exploration of ideas, via a philosophical approach, is welcome. But to seal these ideas in permanence by way of strong fixed opinions…this feels treasonous to me, as if using one’s reach into the public purview to sell them something cheap.

  5. Paul says:

    Melissa, I am in the middle of reading the second book in this series, and as a gay man, I was growing increasingly apprehensive by your portrayal of homosexual individuals – not just as villains – but as ruthless individuals who are utterly without empathy – inhuman. After reading about Sandrine & Bethamin I was shaken, but then there is Ishak’s rape and the use of homoerotic images as a WEAPON against him. I finally used Google to see if you are known to have some kind of anti – gay agenda that would explain your writing. When I came upon this article, I was heartened to see that you are at least considering the question honestly with introspection, but I was very disappointed to see that you have absolved yourself of any culpability in writing novels that portray gay people so hurtfully without a single decent or honorable person as a gay character to balance it out. If you look at any population, you will find all manner of people behaving badly, and I would submit that this is as true of the gay population as it would be about any other population. But given the fact that we are by far a minority, to write a book that is populated by only 2 gay characters, both of whom could barely even be called human, plus 1 bonus unnamed rapist, seems too great a coincidence. If there are essentially 3 gay villains in your book, should there not also be at least twice as many who are equally good, or at least ordinary people living ordinary lives? It’s a bit incredible for me to believe that this was accidental, and I have to tell you that I find it deeply hurtful that you (whether accidentally or intentionally) are perpetrating these negative stereotypes in a world where it is already dangerous to be openly gay because of the fear and bigotry that already exist. Imagine that you had targeted any other people group this way – let’s say that all 3 of these characters had been black or disabled. Would it be so easy to dismiss the obvious inference that you are blatantly reinforcing bigotry? Do you know how many gay people have lost jobs and housing because of exactly these kinds of visceral fears? Do you know how many have been kicked out of their churches and families? How many have committed suicide because of self loathing? How many have been beaten to death? I love your writing – you are a very gifted story teller – but it breaks my heart that you have used your gift in this manner.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Paul, I am so sorry to have created this effect on you. In fact, it was incredibly unintended to target gender and sex in any sort of way.

      In fact, Raine D’Lacourte is in love with Cristien Tagliaferro. It’s mentioned in book 2, but probably overshadowed by your concept of Darshan and Kjieran. Yet Kjieran and Darshan’s relationship becomes pivotal to restoring the Balance. Their relationship in fact (****Spoiler***) becomes deeply sensual, loving and true. I always intended it that way. Several important characters between books three and four have strongly loving pro- same sex relationships.

      It wasn’t brought to my attention that I was presenting a negative view of sexuality until too late to make changes in the early books. Those characters like Sandrine just happen to be interested in same-sex relationships, and Dore – he’s vile on every basis. A sadist irrespective of gender. I had and continue to hold no agenda on the matter. I just didn’t see that I was creating a negative impression. It’s not something I live and breathe, sadly, though I have in the past 5 years tried to become more aware and sensitive to the area. In many cases thanks to readers like you writing in to me with your concerns.

      With the early books, I couldn’t turn on a pin and suddenly create a pro- same-sex relationship just to balance things out. I don’t work that way, even though I am terribly sorry to have created a negative impression. Still, the relationships have to appear in the story organically.

      Which they have. Several of them as we’re coming to the close of book five. I hope you’ll trust that I have and am and continue to portray my personal feelings on this topic — which is that we are beings, not bodies, and the sex of our bodies shouldn’t matter in matters of love. It wasn’t until after book two that someone took the time to point out to me the negative impression I was creating. As of book three, I think you’ll start to see my own held truth being better conveyed.

      Again, I’m very sorry to have caused this unintentional disparagement of same-sex relationships in my earlier books.

      • Paul says:


        Thank you for your reply and for not being defensive or combative. It’s so unusual to find somebody who can respond with such grace. Because of your response, I feel comfortable to dialogue with you and grateful for the opportunity. I wanted to sleep on this before I responded and I am glad that I did, because there are a few things that are becoming clearer for me in the process.

        If you get a chance, I would recommend that you read Romans 1 in the King James Version of the Bible, especially verses 26 & 27. The characters in your book mirror this imagery almost identically – people who have lost all touch with their moral center. That they are gay is just proof of how unredeemable they are. When I was a young boy, I was taught that gay people are so immoral and so lost that you should not even talk to them, lest they pull you into hell with them. Imagine how an 8 year old boy feels being told that he is such a monster, destined for hell – due to a fact about himself that he cannot even change. When you use these characters the way you have, you are reinforcing this idea that gay people are unredeemable monsters. You ally yourself directly with the churches and families who have cast us out. Yes, it is emotional – it is visceral, it is powerful. And it is evil. If you have never lain awake at night knowing that you were going to burn for all eternity in hell and knowing there is nothing you can do about it, I’m not sure if you can understand. Gay teen suicide is a devastating reality. It’s not something to trifle with. It is so visceral because it is literally life and death.

        When I picked up your books, I had no idea who you were or what you stand for or what your journey has been. I only knew that what I was reading was becoming increasingly painful. Now I know that you don’t believe these things personally. But words have power and those words are hanging out there for every new person who picks up that first book in the series. They don’t know what they don’t know – including the fact of who you are and how you live in this world, and they certainly don’t know that your later books will treat them with more kindness. And that would be bad, but honestly, I think what is worse is that there are ordinary straight people out there reading who make comments like those above in this thread — lovely ordinary people who see no problem with portraying gay people like this. Do you have the right to write your books however you see fit? Absolutely you do. So I’m not saying that you cannot write such things. People can and do. And words carry power – the more skillful you are, the more power they carry. It is a great compliment to you that I posit that your words carry enormous power. I personally believe that there is a Karmic response from the universe based on how we live and use the power we are given.

        I do not know what options may be open to you, but I see this as a moment of grace. You are being called to shift to a higher frequency with how you exist in this world. I do not know what this means for you. I had a momentary vision of you speaking to High School students and aspiring writers and talking about your journey and how you have grown through this experience. It’s just an example. Maybe there is a note that can be included as a forward to future publications of these early books. Maybe the audio recordings could have a brief forward that is added on. Maybe the books *could* be rewritten in some way. Maybe you could dedicate a page on your website to this question in order to set the record straight. Maybe your next series will show gay people in loving community and the very real way that they are harmed by wonderful people who don’t know any better. But the real problem is that those words are hanging out there, presumably for all time, interacting with additional people, reinforcing fear and antagonism that is already present in our collective consciousness. It seems to me that restitution might be attempted in some way for the unintended, but ongoing harm.

        To use an analogy, if I had unintentionally written a set of books in which every black person was presented as a gangster who did violence and drugs, toted guns, bullied others, who raped and disrespected women, and who was never shown celebrating a birthday, practicing music, preparing a meal, giving to the poor, or caring for a child… I think that once I learned how this plays into stereotypes and encourages prejudice, I think I would want to pull all the books off the shelf. I don’t think I could let myself off the hook simply because of my own ignorance. It would be horrific for me to consider that my words are out there forever, making me an unwilling accomplice to racism and prejudice. I think I would do everything within my power and creativity to make it right. Easy for me to say – and I know that and I’m sorry for it. I don’t want to tell you what to do. I just want to offer you a different level of awareness and throw out a few ideas, because I think you are a remarkable person with brilliant creativity and I think that you are on an amazing journey and I am grateful for this chance to dialogue with you.

        • Melissa McPhail says:

          Hi Paul,

          Thank you so very much for your forthright communication. The LGBTQ community has my deepest sympathies. It is a horrific injustice that anyone should endure the kind of ostracism that you face, simply because you want to express yourselves in a certain fashion.

          I appreciate your taking the time to share your viewpoint with me and even to protest and challenge my choice not to change the earlier books. I would like to give you a little more information on why I made that choice.

          At the basest and least important level, the books were already in print by the time this was brought to my attention. Changing them would require not only rethinking entire storylines and rewriting large passages but then laying out both books in their entirety again newly, as well as having to re-record many passages in the audiobooks.

          I did consider this option.

          In the end, I chose not to change the books for two reasons:

          First, (and please bear with me while I get through this entire explanation – it’s detailed and long) while you are not alone in expressing your upset with the way these characters (especially Sandrine, Bethamin and Dore) portray homosexuality, it was not my intent in any way to make a statement about same-sex relationships. These characters just happen to have homosexual interests and desires. There are many other hetero-sexual characters who are equally, if not more, debased and villainous. Björn is obviously heterosexual and is the villain of the entire first book.

          So while I absolutely see your viewpoint, there is another point from which to view things. And my point here is this: not everyone reaches the conclusion you reached about these characters. In truth, those with this particular sensitivity (that I am portraying homosexuals as villains without also showing them to be heroes) are in the minority, even among the LGBTQ readers who have communicated to me. The majority of my readers are not particularly sensitive on this point, because they haven’t endured the ostracism you have.

          Paul, I am not saying this to point a finger at you or to say you’re wrong for responding as you have. I totally understand why you responded as you did, and I appreciate hearing from you on the matter. Yours is a point of view I can agree with. Why I’m pointing out this fact of minority versus majority is only because it should provide you with hope.

          Hope, because only a minority of people who read these sections of the story see them beneath the light you did. I have surveyed this exact question with many of my readers. It makes sense that you would read them and see them as you have! But readers without your experience and background generally don’t think about these matters, not even subconsciously (per survey), in the same terms.

          (Again, I am not saying this to justify or to point fingers. Stick with me here. There’s a lot more explanation coming.)

          When I did my own survey of readers on this point, I found it encouraging that only a small percentage of those who read the story came to the conclusion that you did about these characters. That’s heartening, Paul, because it means my readers are taking the story the way I intended them to see things, and it means I still have their reality and agreement—which is essential.

          In the later books, I write a lot about a truth that is shared in many philosophies—even proven out by quantum physics—which is: reality is basically agreement.

          The reality we face here in the west in regards to same-sex relationships is disheartening. It is very much as you described above—judgmental, prejudiced, hurtful, sanctimonious. Right or wrong, the “agreement” that same-sex relationships are “wrong” has established a reality. In order to change anyone’s reality, you have to start by finding agreement. And I know that this, of course, is the hurdle the LGBTQ community faces.

          In my own work, I’ve established a world. As you move through the world, you come into agreement with the truths of the world. Most of my readers can agree on some level with the idea of the Returning, for example. Even if they would never imagine it applies to them in real life, they can see it being a truth in the world of Alorin. And to that degree, we’ve established a new reality for some of them.

          If the majority of people who read my books find no disagreement with the concepts therein (which is supported by survey data and feedback I’ve gotten over the years) then they maintain an agreed-upon reality as they are going through the story. And if I can continue to maintain their agreement without violating their reality, without doing something that drastically causes them to reject, revoke or otherwise throw the book across the room… then I can present new realities, ideally more balanced realities, in a way that they can accept them.

          And that is what I’m trying to do.

          When I was looking at changing the earlier books, I took into account the survey data I had collected. I determined that trying to force a balanced view of same-sex relationships into the earlier books would violate too many realities. The majority of realities. But if those readers stayed with me, rather than forcing a reality they would simply reject early on, I could hopefully influence their agreement to at least see a new side, a new view, another perspective. And now, in book five…? Boy have we come a long way!

          I don’t have a religious or political agenda, but I do believe that we are spiritual beings, and asking (via many varied ways and storylines) the question of are we beings, or are we bodies? is very much along the line of my personal purpose. So it is much within my interest to bring to light any topics that this concept would effect, and explore them.

          I’m hoping that you’ll continue the series and could offer me more insight as you go. Because the series is not finished, and with book five, I’ve taken even further steps towards openly exploring same-sex relationships. My beta readers who have read early parts of the book have found this story thread incredibly moving and beautiful.

          The second reason I did not change the earlier books is simply one of integrity. This is the story. I wrote it. I own that I wrote it. I own that I made some mistakes in writing it. But the story is the story. I don’t change it for anyone. To do so would be a serious violation of my readers’ trust and an enormous violation of my own integrity.

          I am terribly sorry that I missed seeing that the way I was telling the story could be creating a bad impression of homosexuality, but I am doing what I can now to change that impression going forward—hopefully to even greater fruitfulness than if I simply went back and altered the first two books.

          I would greatly appreciate hearing from you about anything you feel would be valuable to put into a specific blog post addressing this topic, so that others who come with this concern can find solace (and hopefully some resolution) to allow them to continue on to the point in the series where they see my true intentions and personal beliefs shining more clearly.

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