As humans, we value honesty and strive to be as truthful as we can as often as we can. But in truth, protection is also important to our species, and many times it trumps honesty. To protect ourselves, everyone periodically resorts to deception—to avoid consequences, to get what we want, to keep from hurting ourselves or others.
One of the most common deceptions I see has to do with our emotions. We mislead others to think we’re feeling one way when we’re really feeling something else. Why? To avoid questions we don’t want to answer, to deny our true feelings and avoid having to face them, to save face in front of others, to keep a secret…the possibilities are endless.
Whatever the motivation, we hide our emotions all the time. And this means that our characters should, too. As authors, we need to know how to show this evasiveness in regards to what our characters are feeling.
One of the most common methods for hiding one’s emotions is the Just Act Normal technique. This is when a character disguises their internal feelings by acting like everything’s fine. This is tough to write, because you’ve essentially got to show two things at once. Here’s a good example of this technique from The Outlaws of Sherwood, by Robin McKinley:
“A wrestler should be a little slippery.” Little John handed Cecily the pot of tallow.
She took it from him daintily, her fingertips not touching his hand, and began to use the palms of her hands, rubbing the long round muscles in a circular motion, using the heels of her hands around the shoulder blades, running the edge of her palm down the spine. She was not so young that she did not know what was happening to her: why her heart was beating too fast, why her breath came hard. She knew, and tried to pretend she was Little John’s sister, and failed.
“That should do,” she said, after a few of the simultaneously longest and shortest minutes of her life. She absent-mindedly went to rub her sticky hands down the front of her bright new tunic when there was an exclamation from her companion and her arms were nearly jerked out of their sockets as Little John grabbed her wrists.
“Not on the tunic! Have you no sense?”
He rubbed each of her hands down each of his forearms and she closed her eyes and thought about fraternal relationships.
Little John said, “Here—are you all right? I am sorry, did I hurt you?”
“Not nearly as much as all the bruises from my quarterstaff lessons, my friend,” she said with a fair imitation of her usual tone.
This exchange clearly shows Cecily’s true emotion (desire) and her attempt to act normal. Her desire is shown through a number of indicators: in the detailed way that she completes the simple act of applying tallow to Little John’s skin; through her thoughts, which are private and safe; by evading his are you all right question; and through her internal cues, which are also safe. All of these clues—none of which Little John can see—indicate how she really feels. In contrast, her words remain nonchalant, showing him what she wants to convey: normalcy.
When hiding an emotion, it’s easier to lie with our words than with our bodies. This is why we turn away when we don’t want people to see what we’re feeling—to give us time to get our bodies under control while we’re saying, “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” So when your character needs to hide, try this formula:
Show the true emotion through vehicles that are difficult for others to notice, like internal physical cues and thoughts. Use details, words, and comparisons that indicate whatever emotion your character is truly feeling. Show the false emotion through dialogue and forced body cues that are meant to deceive others: controlling one’s tone of voice, rearranging one’s facial expression, trying to mimic “normal” gestures, etc.
Emotions are multi-faceted and tricky, but we’ve got to learn to write them clearly if we want to create believable, empathetic characters.
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, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.