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Exploring "Emotional Limbo" in Character Development
Recognizing that understanding doesn’t equal control can lead to richer, more authentic storytelling
This is part of my “Art of Noticing” series, in which I learn, find, or discover the things around me that usually go unnoticed and turn them into an endless source of creative inspiration.
Today, I noticed that even when I understand the illogical triggers of my negative emotions, the emotions still come. It made me realize that “limbo” is a thing, and resistance is the real problem.
Meditation gave me an interesting insight recently: Although I’ve uncovered the totally-ridiculous causes of some of my negative feelings (old childhood triggers that don’t make sense anymore), they show up anyway. It made me realize that understanding emotions doesn’t make me their master. The trick in the in-between time, while old triggers are hopefully losing their power, is to accept the bad stuff that comes instead of fighting it.
In my stories, just like in my life, characters have to navigate the same sort of “emotional limbo”: a space filled with struggles, resistance, and slow growth. But there’s good news: There’s a richness to the journey itself, in which characters grapple with their emotions rather than overcoming them (or even trying to overcome them) immediately. This process, with its ups and downs, is what truly brings them to life.
In other words, it’s the journey, not just the destination, that matters. In the name of pacing, I might be tempted to rush my characters from one plot point to another, skipping the gritty, complicated emotional landscapes that make stories resonate on a human level … but that’s a mistake.
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Here's how this "noticing" can benefit my stories and art:
1. Delving Deeper into Character Growth
Incorporating the idea of “emotional limbo” into a story can provide a fresh lens through which to view character development. Characters who grapple with their understanding and control of emotions tend to more accurately mirror our own human struggles. Real characters don’t just realize something and move on; they wrestle with these revelations, making them more multidimensional and relatable. They resist, in other words. And what did Carl Jung say? “What you resist persists.” That means a deepening of the inner antagonist: Characters can’t win their internal battles until they learn acceptance, because fighting only makes the enemy stronger.
2. Challenging Story Arcs
The space between a character's realization and their ultimate transformation can be a gold mine for plot twists, conflicts, and resolutions. By stretching out this period and diving into the challenges it presents, writers can give readers a richer, more engaging narrative to read and really sink into.
3. Building Authenticity in Narrative
Allowing characters to linger in “emotional limbo” — characterized by growing emotional understanding — without “solving” it easily makes stories more authentic. Embrace the struggle (and the knowledge that in this case, struggle is actually the problem) and readers will start to see themselves in your characters, strengthening their connection to the story.
While it's tempting to create characters that quickly overcome their challenges, it's the journey—their time spent in the emotional limbo—that can truly make them come alive on the page, on screen, or in any other form of art.
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