On Writing: Bits of Joy

Jason on finding out he’s back in a Little Ice Age: Everything is Not Okay, and we’re going to have to struggle to survive, and I am not looking forward to any of it.

Also Jason, on seeing Chae’s library: …I am camping here and never leaving.

You have to know what your heroes fear, what they hate, what mental knots they need to work their way through before they can finally face and defeat outside dangers. But you also have to know what brings your characters joy.

For a swordsman it might be finding the perfect blade, or at last mastering a form he’s only attempted before. For the lady in an arranged marriage, it could be the gradual realization that her husband is as good a man as she hoped for, and just as committed to making this work. For a scholar and historian, several thousand books he’s never read before, many of them primary-source histories written by people on the ground at the time, is a sight to gladden the heart.

(Yes, several thousand. This is not only possible, it’s plausible. We have records of several wealthy merchants from the Ming Dynasty who had upwards of ten thousand volumes. Chae hasn’t always had money, but she’s had time, qiankun pouches, and the ability to wander many, many places selling books.)

Joy is hard to write about. For one thing it’s a relatively ephemeral feeling; if you stop to pin it down to a written page, you may lose it. For another it’s harder for the brain to hang onto long-term; we’re hardwired for survival, not happiness. Our neurochemistry encodes nasty stuff hard, fast and deep so we can hopefully avoid it in the future, while letting happy things fade, so we have to go after them again to regain that feeling. For a third thing – well. A lot of writers are writers because we desperately want to communicate something, and that often means there’s something we are Not Happy about.

But you need to have it in your story. Even if only for instants. The time two lovers breathe together after that first kiss; yes, that really happened, this person wants me. The roar of the crowd as the clock ticks down and the player shifts the last piece, and wins. That moment when your friend’s car goes over the cliff, you fall to your knees… and you see a trembling, dirt-stained hand reach up.

Give your characters joy. Your readers will remember it forever.


24 thoughts on “On Writing: Bits of Joy

  1. Joy, huh? That’s something I have somewhere in Draco.

    I have an assassin-turned-best friend who is a storyteller and musician. For her, mastering a new song to play would bring her joy.

    Noyan, Noyan loves to cook. Nothing brings her more joy than cooking for the rest of the main cast. Perfecting a new recipe, especially if Fleu or one of the others
    claims “My favorite dish!” is what brings her joy…

    I’m not so sure about the rest yet.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I think of Joy as a bright, intense feeling, almost like the heat of the sun on the edge of burning your skin. Great feeling, especially if you’ve been cooped up inside for a while, working. But maybe not something you can stand for long – sooner or later you’re going to get sunburned.

    On the other hand, contentment, still just as happy, but softer, quieter, like a mug of hot chocolate and watching the snow fall outside. That’s a lot easier to feel longer term, it’s less as intense, but still as warm and happy.

    And both are difficult to pin down on the page, darn it!

    (This thought brought to you by the thought of Jason and Library. To me, libraries are contentment with flickers of joy when you first walk in, or find the exact book you’re looking for, or the perfect squishy chair with just the right spot for lighting and quiet is all yours…)

    Liked by 7 people

      1. Same for me, admittedly – joy a few times, happy a lot, contentment and relief… but joy is an intense emotion that is as exhausting as it is wonderful, to me.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think everyone has a kind of different feeling of joy. For me for example: Have you ever had a full gut laugh, one that you can’t stop, where you look up at whatever or whoever caused it and just get set off again? And by the time you finally stop, you are practically crying, your gut literally hurts from laughing and you are still giggling, just a little? That is one version of joy for me. Another is a huge about of books, especially stacked neatly or haphazard on endless shelves. The simple “WOW” combined with an “eeeeeeee!” in my soul, is a well loved moment of joy. Seeing my Nephew (totally not my favorite of my sister’s kids, how dare you suggest such a thing) run to hug me, yelling my name, or cuddling into my side on the couch with a soft “wuv you” 🥰😊🥹 this is the wonder and difficulties of joy, in my opinion, and why it’s so hard to convey in writing, because it is different for everyone.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Over ten thousand books? Where do I sign up?

    Joy is definitely important for characters and readers. Need to break up the passages of action with an “Oh thank [Insert deity], we survived that!” And readers can get joy from the characters surviving the ordeal.

    One of my characters is an absolute magic fanatic in that she loves discovering spells that have been forgotten by time’s passage or lost in the destruction of war. Another finds joy in learning new medicinal techniques.

    My coppersmith finds joy in people liking what he makes, though it wasn’t always like that. In the past, he’d be lucky if the Master Coppersmith brought into his hometown didn’t throw things at him for doing well…

    Yeah, the guy was a real jerk. Part of the reason that character decided to pull a “Get the hell out of Dodge.” That and the smithery going up in flames, which would have blame put on him, so…

    Yeah, that kid needs all the joy he can get.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “Over ten thousand books? Where do I sign up?”

      Tell me about it… oh man, I someday want to have the resources to go trawling for pre-2000 history books of all East Asia and the Appalachians. Plus set up shelves, that’d be nice, yes….

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I think of happiness as being ‘this is fun let’s do it again.’ Joy to me is a choice, it’s deeper, ‘I will be grateful that I am with you, or that I have seen/done this amazing thing.’ Or, as you said, ‘I am so very grateful that you are not dead.’

    Liked by 3 people

      1. I have gotten many good books from college libraries that hold a yearly sale of old books to make way for new ones. I once got five books on medieval England for $2 each. It was nice. I even have gotten a book or two from a Free cart at Seminary.

        I’ll sometimes get to different versions of the same book just to see what was removed or added and try to understand why.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. This is especially noticeable with romance.

    They might have lots of dramatic conversations, and plenty of purple prose drooling over appearances, but if they never show them being happy…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I am pretty sure there were mulberry and ragpaper codices in China by the 1600s or so. Heck, all those detective “novels,” not to mention the big longies like Dream of the Red Chamber.

      (Looks it up) Yup, pretty much from medieval times onward, with gradual binding improvements. Which makes sense, because printed books showed up pretty early, and it is a lot easier to print and bind a codex format.

      People still had scrolls and pamphlets and even those bamboo things, but it depended on purpose. A bound account book was obviously a good idea, for instance.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Google “Hiromi Uehara”. She is the exact and total opposite of depressing music, and just showed up on my radar for the first time ever.

    If anybody tells you that Japanese musicians are all about imitation, show them Hiromi. This lady is so far outside the box she is standing on it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Google “Hiromi Uehara”. She is the exact and total opposite of depressing music, and just showed up on my radar for the first time ever.

    If anybody tells you that Japanese musicians are all about imitation, show them Hiromi. This lady is so far outside the box she is standing on it.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. It also helps to think through what really bring the character joy.

    On the fanfic thing, one of the things I realized partway through that the magic samurai character’s real joy wasn’t in her job; that was a duty, but aside from her iron will to always do her duty, purely external to the character. It was a tool.

    What brought her joy was her gardens. Realising that gave the character so much more depth, even if it didn’t directly come up, it was still there, influencing the character’s actions. And when they threaten to salt the earth, they both mean it and hate it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hmm, joy. Kind of hard to pin down. I’d say for me, it’s in those special, conversations I have with my fiance, where I remember why I fell in love with her all over again. Playing with my daughter. Stepping outside and realizing how beautiful the world is. And those rare, special moments while playing D&D where the story and the dice come together perfectly.


  10. Joy is really hard for me to pick up from in a lot of media… probably because it’s an emotion that is “felt” for most people. All of my emotions get focused outwards though… so it’s not just joy that has this problem, but lots of other emotions as well.

    Joy for me is something I usually realize I was feeling *after* I have been feeling it. Because “joy” is in many ways a total abandonment of self-consciousness due to being so “in the moment” while experiencing something I *like* experiencing that I stop thinking about *myself* and am focused mainly on the thing itself. It’s very, *very* hard to be joyful when I am focused inwards on what *I* am feeling in the moment.

    In many ways, joy and happiness are the same thing for me. Or, rather, joy *needs* happiness to really “work”, happiness doesn’t need joy to “work”. It’s hard to enjoy something that doesn’t make me happy in some way. It is very possible for something to make me happy and then to realize in retrospect that thing *shouldn’t* make me happy. Joy and enjoyment come when I’ve decided that something that makes me happy *should* make me happy and that happiness is a good thing. That way, the next time that thing comes around and makes me happy, I can kinda just… sit back and experience it without having the thought lurking in the back of my head about if I should be happy then.

    So… *a lot* of things, both big and small bring me joy. Eating my mom’s Italian cooking, talking literature and tropes with my sister-in-law, reading a story I’ve read multiple times before just because I like reading it, singing certain songs in church, doing fractal art on my computer, making just about *anything* orderly in some form, watching lightning on the distant mountains, looking at pictures of space and thinking about how *huge* it all is, thinking through various concepts in theology…

    All those things make me happy. To the point I lose myself in them and enjoy the *thing* I am doing or the person I’m doing it with more than the… emotion… I get out of it. The emotion *isn’t the point*. It’s only something I can identify feeling after I’ve stopped doing the thing I enjoyed.

    And that I think is where people go wrong with “being happy”. They think they need a thing/person so they can be *happy* rather than wanting the thing/person for it’s own sake. They chase the emotion of “happiness” not realizing that to be truly happy requires not focusing on themselves, but on the very thing making them happy. And some things are better at making people happy long-term than others are…

    Liked by 1 person

  11. At the risk of being That Guy… how’s Jason going to get past the language barrier? Does his area of specialty mean that he can read the local language family?

    …and then there’s Mary, who’s going to be even *less* linguistically equipped than Jason is.

    They used to have to check the stacks of the local library in the evening to make sure I didn’t get locked in. As long as the bathroom was open, I wouldn’t have minded too much (until I got hungry, anyway). But being in a huge library of *books I couldn’t read* sounds like a very particular version of personal hell…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. If you can read Tokugawa-era kanji, you can at least puzzle out written Chinese and scholarly Korean written with Chinese characters. (As most of it was.) The hangul writing system is known to be easy to learn, and Jason was already working on that before he got isekai’d. Mary is pretty good with modern Japanese, so while her knowledge of kanji would be less, she’s not starting from zero.

      …Also Chae is going to cheat. As cultivators do. *EG*

      Liked by 1 person

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