What is Joy? How do you Describe it in Fiction?

The other day we covered the emotion of fear in fiction, and how useful it can be in creating tension within a character. Today, we travel to the opposite side of the spectrum: joy.

Joy is a state of happiness or delight, often seen with positive emotional changes. We all have experienced joy at one point in our lives. This happiness can be a powerful tool in fiction as it heightens characters’ expressions, shows them at their best.

While it can be fun to break a character down into the depths of fear and despair, joy is refreshing and relaxing for the reader. There are characters with up-beat personalities, often used for comic relief or for balancing out the fear and gloom in a story.

How Do We Define Joy?

Quoting from Dictionary.com, joy is:

1. The emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation: She felt the joy of seeing her son’s success.

2. A source or cause of keen pleasure or delight; something or someone greatly valued or appreciated:Her prose style is a pure joy.

Describing Joy in Fiction

Joy is harder to flesh out than fear in storytelling. Joy requires a deeper level of authenticity that connects to the reader. Writers should be wary of cliches or other mundane terms that weaken the expressions of joy.

Some Character Expressions of Joy

  • smiling, singing, or dancing
  • heart leaping
  • laughing, joking, or teasing,
  • vigorous, excited energy
  • high sociability
  • hugging, kissing
  • confidence, willingness, optimistism
  • restraining from certain quirks
  • daydreaming
  • giving or sharing
  • a clear, strong voice
  • a straight, but relax posture
  • higher than usual strength or endurance

The Dance of Joy and Fear

Remember, joy can’t create tension like fear can. Joy’s purpose is to command relief to the reader. Too much joy all the time, and the story feels dull. Too much fear, and the reader can quickly get exhausted. Instead, a balance of the two is ideal.

Going Deeper

We should ask ourselves how our characters feel when they are happy. What are their dreams? What are their fears that counterbalance that joy? We can put ourselves in the characters’ shoes and savor every ounce of emotion that compromises that joy.

It’s important to show and not tell the emotions, as showing draws the reader deeper into the character. There are exceptions when telling is preferred.

Joy, as wonderful as it sounds, is another device used in the cog of storytelling. It has specific purposes associated with it. Some of these are to:

  • Contrast with dark or hellish themes
  • Motivate a depressed character towards a goal
  • Worldbuild, based on a culture’s perspective of joy
  • Briefly break tension to give the reader a reprieve

Example 1: Lord of the Rings

Let’s examine the Shire: a merry place full of feasting, greenery, and food! It’s kin to a paradise and has—ahem—all the comforts of home. Now contrast that with the dark, hellish realm of Mordor. With Sauron’s evil encroaching upon Middle Earth, the Shire makes his realm look that much darker.

Example 2: Theft of Swords

Royce Melborn is a dark character, often depressed and aloof. His comrade, Hadrian Blackwater, is more optimistic and idealistic. This contrast is excellent and helps drive their character arcs forward. It also creates an entertaining exchange between the two.

Happiness, like fear, can be a potent tool in fiction. When used right. A careful balance of joy and tension creates an enjoyable play of emotions that will delight readers.

What are your thoughts on joy? How would you have it portrayed in stories? Are there any favorite books that illustrate this? We’d love to hear in the comments below. Thanks for reading!


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