How To Share Your Protagonist’s Deepest Feelings With Readers

As writers know, the goal of any book is to make the reader FEEL. We want them to empathize with our characters, feel pulled in by the events and become immersed in the story. When a reader’s experience is emotional, it becomes meaningful, transcending mere entertainment.

Characters are the emotional heart of a story. Why? Because through them, writers can remind readers of their own emotional past.  It becomes an intimate, shared experience that bonds them together.

violenceSure, readers have probably never been terrorized by a serial killer, vampire or demon in their own lives, but they know what it is to feel terror. Likewise, a roguish yet handsome highwayman has likely not pursued them in a roar of love and lust, yet they know what love and lust feel like.

As people, we have an unending spectrum of emotional experiences. We know sorrow and confusion, humiliation, fear and pride. We have experienced satisfaction, confidence, worry and dread. As writers, it is up to us to convey these feelings through our characters so that our description awakens deep and meaningful memories within readers.

Showing what a character is feeling can be difficult for writers. Here are 3 tips to help ensure readers share the character’s emotional ride:

1) Prime your readers

depression1Spend a bit of time early on showing what has led to your character’s emotional sensitivity. Let’s say themes of betrayal are key to your book & the character’s ‘dark moment.’ If you alluded to a past betrayal by the main character’s mother in a scene before this point, then your heroine seeing an old toy from her childhood will become an instant trigger for those past feelings.

2) Focus on what causes the emotional reaction

Sometimes the best way to bring about an emotional moment is to describe what is causing the feeling. For example, let’s say Alexa likes Ethan, the boy next door. She is trying to work up the courage to show him she wants to be more than friends when she spots her rival Jessica at his locker. If you describe how Jessica touches his arm when she laughs, steps closer as he speaks, fiddles with her low necklace to draw his attention to her cleavage, etc. then your reader will feel that jealousy build even without showing Alexa’s thoughts or physical cues.

3) Think about how you might feel

If you are drawing a blank on how to show what your character is feeling, think about how the emotion you’re trying to describe makes you feel. Dig into your past to a time you felt embarrassed, or angry, frustrated, excited…whichever emotion is the one your character is currently facing. What sort of thoughts went through your head? What did your body do? Did you openly show how you felt through gestures and body language, or did you try to hide it?  Then, decide if some of your experience can be adapted to your character. Emotion is strongest when it comes from a place of truth.

For more tips on emotional showing, have a peek through your Emotion Thesaurus, or browse the tutorials at One Stop for Writers.


Image 1: Republica @ Pixabay
Image 2: PDPpics @ Pixabay





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, Description, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Empathy, Experiments, One Stop For Writers, Show Don't Tell, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to How To Share Your Protagonist’s Deepest Feelings With Readers

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  3. Some good suggestions here!! You always have excellent posts!!

  4. Gina Scott Roberts says:

    I’m dealing with two characters in love but denying it because each thinks the other is not interested. I’ve struggled with demonstrating this without bludgeoning the reader over the head with it.

    After reading this, I feel kind of foolish about my struggle, particularly with the female lead’s POV since I actually went through this for a number of years with my late husband (of course unlike her, I was between the ages of 10 and 15).

    Reading the article, particularly #3, I was taken back to those dreadful days and had a “slap myself on the forehead and say wow, why didn’t I think of that?” moment.

    Thanks for the help!

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  6. V.M. Sawh says:

    This is a nice little article, Angela. I found it very helpful, however I’m currently tackling a bit of a similar issue with one of my lead characters. I’m a guy and my lead is also a guy who has to have this breakdown moment. One of the things I want to make sure I get right is to share his deepest feelings with a) the reader and b) the female lead.
    However, like most men, I don’t have alot of experience with tapping into this well without making the male lead come off like a weakling or soft.
    Since your article is written from the female POV, do you have any tips for a male one?

    • I think the same advice can be applied, with some tweaking. With men, a lot of their painful feelings come from believing they have failed somehow–they are very role-driven. As people, it is human nature for us to internalize, to blame ourselves for painful events even when it is illogical to do so. A man whose wife is killed in a robbery right in front of him will torture himself over what he should have done, how he should have protected her, saved her, acted. He didn’t shoot her, didn’t hold the gun, wasn’t logically able to be in a position to prevent what happened, but still, that self-blame is there. So in your case, look at your character’s wound, as I am guessing this is what is causing a breakdown moment. Think about how the character feels they have failed. His thoughts regarding his role of failure, illogical and flawed, will draw readers in and show his brokenness and distraught. With another character, so much depends on their relationship, and his range of emotional expression. Is he reserved, or expressive in general? What is his comfort zone–to be near people when emotionally distressed, or to create space?

      If he is on the “hides what he feels” scale, think about body posture, small ways you can reveal hints of insecurity through “not typical” body language to show his distress. Try mannerisms he’s unusually in control of, uncharacteristic vulnerability hints you can seed in what he says…these can reveal his inner turmoil. Men who are in charge don’t ask for reassurance, they don’t ask for advice, they don’t do check-ins regarding decisions and actions…unless they are insecure. Again, maybe you can play with that. I hope this helps!

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