Hidden Emotions: How To Tell Readers What Characters Don’t Want To Show

pensiveOne of the struggles that comes with writing is when a character feels  vulnerable  and so tries to hide their emotions as a result.  Fear of emotional pain, a lack of trust in others, instinct, or protecting one’s reputation are all reasons he or she might repress what’s going on inside them. After all, people do this in real life, and so it makes sense that our characters will too.  Protecting oneself from feeling exposed is as normal as it gets.

But where does that leave writers who STILL have to show these hidden emotions to the reader (and possibly other characters in the scene)?

The answer is a “TELL”– a subtle, bodily response or micro gesture that a character has little or no control over.

No matter how hard we try, our bodies are emotional mirrors, and can give our true feelings away.  We can force hands to unknot, fake nonchalance, smile when we don’t mean it and lie as needed. However, to the trained eye, TELLS will leak through: a rushed voice. An off-pitch laugh. Hands that fiddle and smooth.  Self-soothing touches to comfort.  Sweating.

For a story to have emotional range, our characters will naturally hide what they feel at some point, and when they do, the writer must be ready. Readers will be primed for an emotional response by the scene’s build up, and will be on the lookout for a character’s body language cues and tells.

Here is a list of possible TELLS that will convey to readers that more is going on with your Protagonist than it seems:

  • A voice that breaks, drops or raises in pitch; a change in speech patterns
  • Micro hesitations (delayed speech, throat clearing, slow reaction time) showing a lack of commitment
  • A forced smile, laugh or verbally agreeing/disagreeing in a way that does not seem genuine
  • Cancelling gestures (smiling but stepping back; saying No but reaching out, etc.)
  • Hands that fiddle with items, clothing and jewellery
  • Stiff posture and movements; remaining TOO still and composed
  • Rushing (the flight instinct kicking in) or making excuses to leave or avoid a situation
  • A lack of eye contact; purposefully ignoring someone or something
  • Closed body posture (body shielding, arms crossing chest, using the hair to hide the face, etc.)
  • Sweating or trembling, a tautness in the muscles or jaw line
  • Smaller gestures of the emotion ‘leaking out’ (see The Emotion Thesaurus for ideas that match each emotion)
  • Growing inanimate and contributing less to conversation
  • Verbal responses that seem to have double meanings; sarcasm
  • Attempting to intimidate others into dropping a subject
    Overreacting  to something said or done in jest
  • Increasing one’s personal space ( withdrawing from a group, sitting alone, etc.)
  • Tightness around the eyes or mouth (belying the strain of keeping emotion under wraps)
  • Hiding one’s hands in some way

Sometimes a writer can let the character’s true thoughts leak out and this can help  show the reader what’s really being felt. But this only works if the character happens to be the Point Of View Character. The rest of the time, it comes down to micro body language and body tells that are hard, if not impossible, to control.

Have you used any of these tells to show the reader or other characters in the scene that something is wrong? What tells do you notice most in real life as you read the body language of those around you? (These real life interactions can be gold mines for fresh body language cues to apply to your characters!)

TIP: For more inspiration on body language that will convey specific emotions, flip through The Emotion Thesaurus.

TIP 2.0: Becca has a great post on Hidden Emotions as well, and how “Acting Normal” might be the go-to expressive that gets hidden emotions across to the reader, while potentially leaving other characters in the dark.

Original posting
Picture credit: PublicDomainPictures @ Pixabay

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.

This entry was posted in Character Flaws, Character Traits, Characters, Description, Dialogue, Emotion, Fear, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Hidden Emotions: How To Tell Readers What Characters Don’t Want To Show

  1. Pingback: Hidden Emotions: How To Tell Readers – Kawanee's Korner

  2. Fritze says:

    really helpful post. It applies to all of my characters! 🙂

  3. Great article. I shared this on Twitter.

  4. Thanks for linking to this post. So extremely helpful. I’m blown away. You must be a psychologist as well as a writer!

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  7. Thanks for the great list! I love the Emotion Thesaurus. I use it all the time.

  8. Pingback: 99 Essential Quotes on Character Creation

  9. Lisa Turner says:

    Thank you SO much for this list. I’m new to writing and know that character development is something I really need to work on in my novel. Your list has just inspired and enabled me to move forward in several scenes – thank you again.

  10. Pingback: Posts I loved this week | Taylor Grace

  11. This is a great post! Thanks so much. I will definitely we posting this link on my blog.

  12. Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [07.21.14 The Last Month's Worth]

  13. Thank you for the info. I have downloaded two of your books to my Kindle, The Emotion Thesaurus is one of them.

  14. Pingback: Wednesday links: Cliche endings, gag orders, after the publishing contract, and showing emotion | Miranda Burski

  15. Sandra Masters McCart says:

    Thanks, Laurie. I use the Emotional Thesaurus quite often to help me think through the character’s emotion. Thanks so much for the post. Now, back to the Query, Synopsis, etc. Writing Package Class.

  16. Thank you so much for another awesome and informative post. I have The Emotion Thesaurus constantly open when I write. It’s such a useful tool for deepening a character’s emotional response.

  17. Thanks for the great examples!

  18. Amy Pfaff says:

    Thanks. I needed this. Great post.

  19. :Donna Marie says:

    You guys have the BEST information 😀 I just love it so much, which is why it will be VERY difficult to stay away—or at least not comment. I don’t think I mentioned this here, but, as an aside, I’m trying to make a conscious decision on cutting back for a while on how much time I spend on reading/commenting on blogs I love and follow, ’cause if I don’t, my own blogs will never be launched *sigh* I’m not disappearing…just fading for a bit with occasional apparitional appearances. I figure if I actually TELL everyone I’m doing this (that is, if you notice lol)—I actually WILL!

    What I’ll probably do is save all the links of the ones I miss and try to catch up. We’ll see! lol Great post, as usual, Angela 🙂

    • Donna, don’t apologize at all! Making sure the bulk of your time goes into your own writing is the most important thing. Because of the time it takes for us to write and research our books, run a business and keep this website going, Becca and I have cut back on commenting as well. We have no expectations as far as comments go, either–we’d rather you guys drop in and use what you need and then get back to your own work! 🙂 So no worries! 🙂

      • :Donna Marie says:

        Angela, thank you so much. You’re so kind 🙂 One of the problems is I sincerely enjoy the interaction and conversation that comes from valuable posts. I also feel very strongly (though time really doesn’t allow for most) that, considering the time and effort the authors put into these posts (certainly yours and Becca’s), I want to outwardly express my appreciation. In waht better way than commenting? What I may do is end up commenting, but not following the comments which draw me further into the conversations I need to avoid—-for NOW 😉

  20. Julie Musil says:

    Love these ideas, Angela. I can appreciate it when authors do this well.

  21. A very useful tool in characterization.

  22. Excellent as usual!

  23. Very good article, Angela! I like your list of tells. I guess the reactions would vary depending on personality and what emotion the character is trying to hide.

  24. Heather Marsten says:

    Good listing of tells. I love your Emotion Thesaurus. In my memoir, one of the things I had to do as a child was control my emotions. If I cried it could mean a beating or death. One of the things I did that you didn’t mention in your list was inflict a pain on a part of my body that I could focus on so I wouldn’t show tears. I would pull my little finger toward the center of my palm, dig fingernails into my palm, pinch my leg, anything to feel other than the tears that wanted to come. Thought those might be useful for you.

    • I’m so very sorry that your past experiences have given you such intimate knowledge of hiding emotions, Heather, but I thank you so much for posting here so we can all broaden our ideas of what possible tells may look like under extreme duress. Really appreciate you taking the time to comment. 🙂

  25. Joss L. Riley says:

    Great article. As a reader, micro expressions are wonderful way to connect with a character. When writing my main character, I always try to give them a little tell.

  26. Zee says:

    A tell that *I* have is tightening my jaw, and pursed lips, when I’m holding back from expressing an opinion that’s better left unsaid. I also often fiddle with stuff, or fumble with my hands, as a sort of nervous tick.

    Closed body language is something I notice easily in other people, but this list is fantastic. It comes at a good time, too, as I’m editing my WIP and this is one thing that needs to be a bit meatier.

    • Thanks for this Zee, and so glad the post comes at a good time. One of the best ways to come up with an authentic tell or two for our characters is to think about what we do. And sometimes it can really help to ask a family member or close friend what tells they notice about us. Sometimes we do things and aren’t aware of it, but those who are close to us pick up on them and know what it means. 🙂

  27. Marilu Retzer says:

    I’m reading your book about outlining – oh, do I wish I had found it years ago! Thank you for such a great and helpful book!

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