Imagined Sensations Bring Emotions to Life

It takes a mix of sensations to awaken emotions.

Posted Jun 10, 2019

Within a few sentences, good writers can pull readers into stories so that the readers feel they’ve entered a character’s world. How do the writers do it? No alchemical formula exists showing how to produce emotion from language, so fiction-writers often let their characters’ emotions emerge as they may in life: through complex blends of sensations.

People vary in their reasons for reading fiction, but many like to enter unfamiliar minds and bodies and share fictional people’s experiences. Literary scholar Lisa Zunshine has proposed that people like to read fiction because reading exercises one’s theory of mind, one’s ability to imagine what another person is feeling (Zunshine). No two readers respond to a story the same way because each draws on his or her unique experiences to imagine a character’s inner world.

C-U Crop by Aunehearts, licensed by CC By-NC 2.0
Girl Reading
Source: C-U Crop by Aunehearts, licensed by CC By-NC 2.0

But what makes a character’s inner life worth imagining? How do words on a page hint that a character has an inner life at all? In English, sensations and emotions merge in the verb “to feel,” revealing a cultural belief that perceptions and emotions are closely related. This belief has at least some basis in reality because intense, vivid descriptions of bodily sensations can awaken emotions in readers.

Fiction writer Flannery O’Connor proposed that “the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions” (O’Connor 67). O’Connor mentions a friend who “learned from [Gustave] Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real” (O’Connor 69). In everyday experiences, readers integrate sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches, including their inner bodily sense, and compare them with recollected sensory experiences to make sense of the world. Not every reader has access to all five sensory modalities, but every reader senses the world in multiple ways at once.

Literary scholar G. Gabrielle Starr, who has collaborated with neuroscientists, points out that when people respond to fiction or other art forms by creating mental images, “most imagery is . . . not just multidimensional but multisensory” (Starr 78). In When Fiction Feels Real, literary scholar Elaine Auyoung shows how authors who want to pull readers into their characters’ experiences (since not all writers have this artistic aim) cue the readers to recall common bodily sensations and actions (Auyoung 13). A reader can sense a perceiving, feeling consciousness if a character is integrating multiple sensations just as the reader might in a similar situation.

If the scene falls outside most readers’ experiences–and who wants to read about things she’s often experienced?–sensory descriptions can play an even more important role in helping readers feel what the characters do. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz leads readers into the mind of Oscar’s twelve-year-old sister, Lola, whose violent mother orders her to feel for a tumor in the mother’s breast:

“She was standing in front of the medicine cabinet mirror, naked from the waist up, her bra slung about her waist like a torn sail, the scar on her back as vast and inconsolable as a sea. . . . Her eyes meet yours, the same big smoky eyes you will have in the future. . . . Your mother’s breasts are immensities. . . . They’re 36 triple-Ds and the aureoles are as big as saucers and black as pitch and at their edges are fierce hairs that sometimes she plucked and sometimes she didn’t . . . . she takes your right hand and guides you. Your mom is rough in all things but this time she is gentle. . . . At first, all you feel is the heat of her and the density of the tissue, like a bread that never stopped rising. She kneads your fingers into her. You’re as close as you’ve ever been and your breathing is what you hear . . . suddenly without warning, you do feel something. A knot just beneath her skin, tight and secretive as a plot. . . . you are overcome by the feeling, the premonition, that something in your life is about to change. You become light-headed and you can feel a throbbing in your blood, a beat, a rhythm, a drum. Bright lights zoom through you like photon torpedoes, like comets” (Díaz 51-53).

To appreciate the way Díaz offers readers sensations in this passage, one needs to bear in mind how he is telling his story. The history of Oscar’s family comes not through Lola but through Yunior, Oscar’s college roommate, who will later love Lola but can’t overcome his lust for women’s body parts and declare love for one whole woman. At times Yunior almost disappears, as in this scene that Lola must have described to him. Her use of the second-person “you” helps readers imagine her telling Yunior the story. Yunior has a fascination with breasts, and his emotions tincture Lola’s as she is forced to confront the biggest, scariest breasts she has ever seen. As she sees and feels her mother’s body, she is imagining her own future.

DSCN0926 by dishfunctional, licensed under CC By-NC-SA 2.0
Junot Díaz reading from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Source: DSCN0926 by dishfunctional, licensed under CC By-NC-SA 2.0

It would do Díaz and his readers an injustice to try to say exactly what emotions this scene evokes. He has written it so that people can make it real by imagining whatever feelings (sensory and emotional) occur to them. To convey what’s happening in Lola’s mind, Díaz offers readers sights (black aureoles “as big as saucers” (Díaz 51)), the soft sound of Lola's breathing, and three of the four somatosensory modalities (light tactile sense, deep bodily sense, and temperature sense) (Kandel et al. 430). The fourth somatosensory modality, pain, haunts the scene metaphorically. The word “aureole” suggests Yunior’s embellishments to the story, since Díaz’s narrator is a connoisseur of women’s breasts. But a reader can also sense his love for Lola, since he lets her sensations and emotions come through.

In this scene, Lola literally feels the vulnerability of her mother, Beli, whom she describes as “rough in all things” (Díaz 52). Beli’s scar “as vast and inconsolable as a sea” refers to a history that at this point in the novel, readers have not yet heard (Díaz 51). As a child (in the Dominican Republic, in the 1950s), Beli was sold as a slave and nearly killed when her owner hurled hot oil on her because she tried to go to school. As a visual image, her “inconsolable” scar conveys suffering that extends far beyond her own life, which readers sense through Díaz’s words although they don’t yet know the details. As quick with her wit as with her reflexes, Beli fights all comers, and most of Paterson, New Jersey, including Yunior, is afraid of her. Beli works two jobs, and according to Lola, “. . . when she was around it seemed all she did was scream and hit . . . She would hit us anywhere, in front of anyone” (Díaz 54). In this context, the gentleness of Beli’s grip and the softness of her flesh come as a surprise. The “fierce” hairs convey Lola’s and Yunior’s awareness that Beli’s body is a fearsome thing, but under Lola’s fingers, it doesn’t feel the way it makes Lola feel.

The most powerful emotions that emerge from Lola’s encounter with her mother’s breast come from her feelings about herself. Lola tells this story to explain the source of her inkling that her life is about to change, and not just because of her mother’s cancer. Lola is entering puberty, and in her mother’s tall, dark body, she sees her own. She may wonder whether she’ll become her mother in every sense: tortured, exploited, abandoned, angry for good reason. The complex mixture of love, hate, and identification Lola feels, each reader must sort through for herself. What comes through most strongly is her sense of connection. The passage begins with Lola’s sensations of her mother’s body, but it moves toward the sound of Lola's breathing and the beat of her own blood. Like Lola, readers can’t be sure where Lola ends and her mother begins.

In an interview shortly after Oscar Wao was published, Díaz said, “I write like it’s an organ I’m pulling out of myself” (Danticat 92). He describes his writing the way he conveys his characters’ emotions, by grounding the feelings in bodily anguish. According to Díaz, he found the scenes with Oscar (an overweight Dominican nerd addicted to science fiction and fantasy) easiest to write (Danticat 90). Romantic Oscar and pragmatic Yunior come across as two bright, self-destructive parts of one consciousness, a fat Quixote and a buff Sancho Panza (Meacham). Díaz says that the rest of the novel “took years” to write, but they were years well spent (Danticat 90). Writing about Lola “feeling” her mother’s cancer must have taken intense, painful work, but Díaz did justice to his character’s conflicting emotions by describing the unnerving softness she touches and the secret knot she finds. His description works literally and metaphorically so that one character’s sensations open up a whole world.

Research for this post was supported in part by the Emory University Research Committee.


Auyoung, E. (2018). When Fiction Feels Real: Representation and the Reading Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

Danticat, E. (2007). “Junot Díaz.” BOMB no. 101, pp. 89-90, 92-95.

Díaz, J. (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead; Penguin Random House.

Kandel, E. R., et al. (2013). Principles of Neural Science. 5th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

O’Connor, F. (1969). “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” In Mystery and Manners. Edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.

Starr, G. G. (2013). Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Zunshine, L. (2006). Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

Meacham, C. (2014). "A Dominican Alonso Quijano: The Ingenious Knight Oscar Wao." Hispanofila 172, pp. 67-76.