Surprising Emotions: How Will Your Character React?

Happy to welcome David Farland with us today to give us his take on the importance of character emotions and how reactions can often surprise and enthrall readers.  

David has written and edited fifty published books and has trained several international bestselling authors like Brandon Sanderson in fantasy, Brandon Mull in middle-grade fiction, and Stephenie Meyer in young adult fiction.

David also teaches workshops, is the creator of David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants, an email bulletin for writers.

 Surprising Emotions

When I was thirteen, I met my grandfather for the first time, and he told me about his life in the Mafia.  “I ran whorehouses and gambling joints in the Midwest, for more than thirty years,” he said, “mainly from Detroit down into Chicago.”  It’s the kind of admission that I would expect a person to shrink from making, rather vile and repugnant.  But you should have seen him.  His back straightened, his chin rose, and his gaze drifted wistfully to the horizon.  He was so proud to have been a mob boss.  

I learned a lot about my grandfather that day, but he spoke little, so the most important things that I learned came from visual cues.  

For writers, learning how to describe the physical manifestations of emotions is vital.  But just as important is knowing when to focus on showing an emotion and what emotion to focus on.  

As a judge for a large writing contest, I frequently read manuscripts where new authors spend a great deal of time giving me the physical cues of emotions that we rather all expect.  Thus, the descriptions can feel boring and over-wrought, even if they’re honest.

You have to decide when to focus.

You see, if your character is facing a charging rhino, your reader will expect that he’s scared.  In fact, if you depict the charge well, the reader will actually feel some fear.  His adrenaline will surge, his heart will beat faster, his muscles will tighten, blood will rush to his brain, his mouth will dry.  The physical manifestations won’t be as strong as when you actually live through the incident, but the echoes will be there.

So I may not need to focus on my protagonists emotions too much in that circumstance.  

But when a character has a surprising reaction to an incident, then it becomes imperative to document what’s happening.  Surprising reactions can be one of three kinds.

Under-reaction.  Let’s go back to our charging rhino.  What if, instead of having my character turn tail and run, as all of his companions do, he only becomes slightly discomposed?  It may be a signal he has faced death before and knows exactly what to do, or that he’s just the kind of person who loves to face a challenge.  So as an author, I might want to spend a bit of extra time and effort showing his reaction.

Over-reaction can also be fun.  Let’s imagine that our character is a seasoned big-game hunter at the turn of the twentieth century.  He’s Teddy Roosevelt, a war hero, with an elephant gun.  A rhino charges.  The other hunters in the party expect him to stand boldly in the rhino’s path, take careful aim, and bring the behemoth down.  Instead, Teddy takes one look, his eyes roll back in his head, and he faints.  That kind of over-reaction—the fluttering eyes, the stricken expression, even his slow fall to the ground—might be worth a good page or two.

Wrong Reactions.  Let’s face it, sometimes characters don’t react to a situation the way that we think that they should.  For example, evidence indicates that one tribe of ancient Neanderthals both ate woolly rhinos—and worshipped them.  To kill one, the hunter had to face it as it charged, then hurl a spear at point-blank range as he dodged aside. 

So how would such a Neanderthal react to such a charge?  Imagine that his children are hiding in a cave.  His pregnant wife is hungry, and god has come to give himself.  An eager hunter might react to the charge with tears of joy.  He might race toward his prey singing songs of thankfulness.  And once again, I want that account to be drawn to graceful perfection.

In short, when you’re writing character emotions, don’t report every sundry emotion—surprise us, both with the type of emotion you’re portraying and with your loquaciousness at portraying it!


Some people sing at night to drive back the darkness.  Others sing to summon it. . . .

Bron Jones was abandoned at birth. Thrown into foster care, he was rejected by one family after another, until he met Olivia, a gifted and devoted high-school teacher who recognized him for what he really was–what her people call a “nightingale.”

But Bron isn’t ready to learn the truth. There are secrets that have been hidden from mankind for hundreds of thousands of years, secrets that should remain hidden. Some things are too dangerous to know.  Bron’s secret may be the most dangerous of all.

David has a lot of great things going on at his website (including a boatload of writing tips!) and you can find him on both FaceBook and Twitter.  


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Emotion, Guest Post, Reading. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Surprising Emotions: How Will Your Character React?

  1. sjp says:

    Really liked the example of the under reaction and how it reflects the character 🙂

  2. Great post! I’ve witnessed more under-reaction than over-reaction in characters of fiction anymore. I don’t understand this though. But, I love suspense thriller and horror more than anything.

  3. Angela Brown says:

    Interesting points to consider as I work on a few WiPs I have ongoing.

    Thank you.

  4. LD Masterson says:

    Good food for thought. Thank you.

  5. Perfect explanation and nice examples. This is very good advice.

  6. I am a big fan of twists, and often it is when the character reacts unexpectedly that I see the situation in a new light. I love it when an author provides something different than what I saw coming! Characters who surprise the reader always seem more layered and unique.

    Thanks for the comments, you guys, and thanks to David for a great post!

  7. Oh, I like this. No surprise. I get David’s Daily Kicks emails. He’s got great advice in them. Loved Nightingale.

  8. Awesome post, David. By showing the emotions this way, you give the reader another taste of characterization. All three responses reveal a different character. As writers, we need to remember the character doesn’t necessarily have to respond to the charging rhino like we would have.

  9. Great tips David. Sometimes it’s good to think outside the box so we don’t fall into cliche emotions. Thanks for sharing.

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