Years ago, Becca and I grumbled about how our characters always expressed emotion the same way. My big thing? Frowning. Did my characters EVER know how to frown. They were savage at it. Becca’s characters? Smilers, all of them. SO HAPPY.
Unfortunately, our inability to express emotion in a fresh way was dragging down the quality of our writing. So, in 2012 we published The Emotion Thesaurus, hoping it would help writers get out of this boring rut when it came to expression.
That was a pretty ambitious project, but was it enough? Apparently not, because in 2019, we decided to expand The Emotion Thesaurus into a second edition, adding 55 new entries and way more instructional front matter.
Along the way, we added The Emotion Thesaurus to our massive show-don’t-tell database at One Stop for Writers, and expanded it again!
All these expansions, but is it any wonder? Conveying character emotion is so important…but not always easy to do.
Today let’s look at 10 different ways to SHOW what a character is feeling.
It’s no surprise–a huge part of showing emotion is describing how the body reacts during an emotional experience. No emotion is the same – grief looks different from gratitude, excitement displays differently than dread.
One thing we can work to improve is to not focus on describing facial expressions as much (things like eyes narrowing, lips pinching, etc.) because there are only so many things to describe when it comes to the face. The body, though…always lots of great ways to show emotion there.
Think about gratitude – how a hand splayed across the chest, shoulders bowing momentarily before stiffening, shaky fingers reaching up to rub the lip these will all make sense for a character winning an award for something when he had a lot of help and support. When you want to come up with unique body language, put yourself in the character’s shoes and imagine the scene. Let yourself feel what they do, then set out to describe it.
Thoughts are an excellent way to show emotion, as long as they adhere to the rules of POV. When swept up by emotion, our thoughts follow certain patterns. Worry has us jumping to conclusions and imagining the worst case scenario. Skepticism has us poking holes in every statement or deed as we look for proof that our intuition is right and something’s rotten in the litter box. Scorn goes further, revealing those ugly, judgey-judge thoughts we have about someone else. Flavor your character’s thoughts with emotions, and not only will a character’s voice shine, readers will also be drawn right in!
Internal sensations, a.k.a., visceral responses, are those immediate and uncontrollable reactions we have to emotion. That tight heat of arousal at just the right touch (desire), the spike in heart rate when a streetlight suddenly goes out (fear), a rock that manifests in the gut after noticing an ambulance in the driveway (dread)…these sensations are immediate and powerful.
Use them when you’re in the character’s POV as readers recognize these sensations and have felt them all before, bur remember less is more because while powerful, too much will send things into melodrama land.
Posture is a great way to show a character’s emotions. Are they a wall of tenseness, or more fluid, relaxed, and loose? Is their chest thrust out (confident), caved (struggling or upset), shielded by crossed arms (closed off, impatient, irritated) or do they stand with arms out (welcoming & caring)? If your character leaning in, or away? Do their feet point toward someone (engaged) or away (escape)? The body is a road map that we can use to show readers exactly what they are feeling.
Introvert, extrovert, or in between, all characters have a bubble of personal space that allows them to feel safe. This area may widen or narrow, depending on how the character feels. Does he let people into his space or keep them at a distance? Does he enter the space of others? We can see indicators of how he feels by his willingness to engage and be vulnerable (or not).
Dialogue is a great way to show emotion as long as it mimics the real world. People rarely state their feelings directly—they beat around the bush. They don’t say “I’m angry,” instead they rant or vent about the thing pissing them off. What a character says (and what they avoid talking about!) show their inner emotional landscape to readers and other characters.
Along with what a character says is how they say it. Are they speaking fast (nerves, rushing, impatience) or slow (careful, thoughtful, tentative)? Does their voice rise in pitch, showing they can’t quite keep a lid on what they are feeling, or go lower, revealing they are in control, or trying to rein themselves in? Do they hesitate, emphasize certain words, fumble around and go on tangents to show their discomfort about a topic, or interrupt themselves to change the direction because they are revealing too much?
Decision-Making & Actions
Okay, my psychology geekiness is showing, but one of the BEST PARTS of emotion is that it constantly messes up a character. Emotions (and their amplifiers) are great at destabilizing decision-making skills. When people act out of fear, or anxiety, defensiveness, or even out of love or desire, they do things differently than they would if they were feeling centered and rational.
Every action has a consequence, and emotion-driven actions can create conflict fallout, which is great for storytelling…and shows what emotions are pushing a character’s buttons.
Every character has empty spaces they carefully maneuver around if we look hard enough. These are danger zones where they might come face to face with an emotion they are uncomfortable experiencing, usually because it is tied to an emotional wound that leaves them jaded and questioning their on self-worth.
Voids can be used to indicate these painful emotions simply by showing things that are out of character, like them ignoring something right in front of them because it makes them feel uncomfortable, or how they steer conversations away from something that nudges painful feelings. This void can be resistance, like showing them do something the hard way because he’s avoiding the logical choice as it’s chained in negative emotions. Imagine wanting to ask a older brother for help because he’s the expert, but refusing to because he slept with the character’s ex the day after the two separated. Because voids hint at deep emotions and complicated situations they should be treated like the proverbial “smoking gun.” In other words, if you show friction between brothers to the extent that one will go to great lengths to not seek out the other’s help, that emotional sore spot eventually must come to light so the void makes sense.
We’ve all said to a relative, “Of course you can stay with us this weekend!” when they ask. But sometimes, inside, we are a hodge-podge of emotion: we’re swamped at work, the house is a mess, and we have no time to host big dinners and provide the entertainment which goes with family visits. Yet we smile and nod as we speak….except our shoulders sag a little, or we swallow and hesitate before forcefully flooding our voice with enthusiasm. Basically, with contradictions, a character may try to fake it but body language doesn’t lie.
And these are just the tip of the iceberg!
There are more ways to show emotion–so many more. Anyway, the big takeaway?
Use a variety of techniques, drawing from different description wells.
If you only show emotion through body language, or dialogue, or rely too heavily on the internal thoughts of your POV character, your writing will seem one-dimensional and readers won’t have as memorable of an experience.
Stretch yourself! In each scene, think how some of these might work. Experiment. You might just see your writing jump from good…to great!
Need more help with body language and emotion?
Don’t forget to observe the people around you. When they are feeling a specific emotion, how do they behave? What do they say and do? Bring the real world into your story for realistic emotional portrayals.
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.