As a writer, I assume you want to affect the emotions of your readers. You want to make them hate the villain, love the heroine, worry for the protagonist’s daughter or whatever else. You want them to be invested in your work and to care about your characters.
We, as writers, do whatever we can think of to bring our characters to life. We do what it takes to gain this investment on the part of the reader. In our pursuit of this lofty goal, it is far to easy to take a shortcut and not even realize it. When we do this, we are cheating our readers and cheating ourselves.
What am I referring to? Sentiment. To understand why sentiment isn’t the same as emotion, I have to explain in greater detail. Sentiment is a fluffy puppy with a bow. We see it and the majority of people react in a specific prescribed way. It is an iconic thing that we react to by default, but that doesn’t have substance in it’s own right. We don’t know the personality of the puppy, so we aren’t really attached. It’s cute and we want it, but then a day later when it isn’t in front of us, we probably aren’t thinking about it any more unless it is ours and now has a connection to us.
Things of sentiment may be attached to the character, but not the reader. They get a response within the moment, but not often one that is meaningful in the long run. Entire books can be built around sentiment, but when the reader finishes and is on to the next book in their library, they probably don’t remember a lot about yours. It was okay, but it didn’t impact them like some others have. Real emotional connections require more than just one dimension.
This applies to more than just romantic gestures. The figure that stands in the shadows, the mentor who dies (leaving the hero distraught despite us only barely having met the character), or the sleuth sucking on a pipe as he thinks are all variations. Symbols meant to provoke a way of thinking or an emotional response that on their own don’t hold a deeper significance. Since any one of these character traits or actions could be part of a larger narrative, they might be used for emotional responses just as easily.
This ambiguity can make it hard to recognize sentiment when it appears in your writing. The easiest way to know is to replace the offending item with something else and see if it still works. If you can replace it easily or remove it from the story entirely without it impairing the overall narrative, it is probably sentiment. Does that fluffy puppy only stand in as a symbol of how much he loves her or does it have something more to it? Does the dog later get hit by a car? Does it grow up to be a real handful (as many puppies can do if not carefully trained)? If all it does is be cute, snuggle and remind the person of the one who got it for them, then it’s sentiment.
Remember, you want the reader to really care. If they don’t feel like they are right there with the character, experiencing it with them, then you aren’t touching that reader’s emotions. Think about some of the works you’ve read that were okay reads at the time, but somewhat forgettable. If you can’t recall well enough, go back and reread them. I would guess that in most cases you will realize that the moments that struck you at the time were sentiment rather than emotion. They were effective, but not lasting. There’s a good chance that unless you immediately bought more books from that author, you promptly forgot their name as you got pulled into that next amazing read by someone who really knew how to hit the emotional notes. You know, that author whose entire collection you just had to own. Something to think about at least as you work on your latest writing.