Emotional Shielding


"Emotional Shielding" is a new term for me, but I like it. It creates the right visual for what the character is doing - protecting themselves from emotions with other emotions. Understanding the kind of shields your characters carry and, importantly, where those shields come from is key to having a complex, three-dimensional character. It is what takes your character beyond the stereotype.

For example, the "emotionally unavailable alpha male" appears in a lot of books, what makes them different is WHY he is emotionally unavailable. Digging deep into his back story and understanding why he started shuttering his emotions - and using them as a shield against anyone ever getting close to him - makes him a more interesting character. 

Just be cautious about how much of that backstory is included. The reader doesn't need his entire life story, but revealing key moments will break down that barrier and allow him to access those more tender feelings.

Take a look at this article by Becca Puglisi on The Creative Penn Blog. She outlines four ways that characters (and people in general) manifest our emotional shields:

  • Flaws - perfectionism, selfishness, etc.

  • Dysfunctional Behaviors - lying, avoidance, being a jerk

  • False Beliefs - it is all my fault

  • Biases - "they" can't be trusted

These can appear alone or together in a character. They can morph and feed on each other over time until the person doesn't even realize it is a coping mechanism versus a part of their true self. 

What kind of emotional shielding do your characters have? Where did it come from? It is the second question that is really challenging. Sometimes we can see our characters in our heads, we know that certain situations will make them uncomfortable or a certain word will trigger their anger. But we need to be clear in our heads (if not directly on the page) about the source of their discomfort to understand why that is. 

The emotional shielding doesn't have to be made up of negative feelings. I worked on a book last month where the heroine was viewed as kind and sweet by everyone around her. As the setting was 1600s Scotland, there were plenty of Highlanders around to protect her. As we got to know her, it turned out she was kind and sweet thanks to her training. As sister to the laird, she would need to be able to run a household and host celebrations so she was meticulous about details and very good at putting people at ease when there was tension. We find out she is tired of the protected life and wished the people around her would see that she can take care of herself. Every time someone called her sweet it made her angry, something she hid effectively until she just couldn't anymore. Once the anger was out there, that opened her up to revealing more emotions. When the Fairy Queen needed a spy to keep an eye on the men and make sure dissent was not sewn in the ranks during their mission, she was the right candidate. She used her charm to stay close and direct conversations when needed. 

Do you know why your character behaves a certain way? Need any help in figuring it out? Comment here, let's chat.