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! 

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.

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