We’ve all read stories where our breath slows, the world falls away, and the page disappears. We’re somewhere else, a place that isn’t real, yet is. We’re with people who don’t exist, yet somehow do. We see what they see. Feel what they feel. We are in the moment, captive, compelled, not just reading words, but living them.
When we come up for air, as writers, we sort of sag in place, awed by the power the author had over us. It’s beautiful and enviable, this story sorcery. We want it for ourselves, of course. Thankfully, we know what it is. We even have a name for it: emotion.
Emotion is the bridge between characters and readers. It’s what draws the latter out of the real world and into the fictional one.
And above all else, it’s the one thing storytellers MUST get right.
We know how important emotion is to story, and we want to write it in a way that grips readers, whether it’s rage or fear, amusement or curiosity. Our universal goal is to show the character’s feelings in a way that rings true – readers recognize the emotion, connect with it, and share this emotional moment with the character in a way that’s meaningful.
It’s a tall order, especially when we feel like all our characters tend to express emotions in the same way. You know, the smiles, frowns, and smirks. The racing heartbeats. The shuddery breaths.
(Did you wince a little? It’s okay. We all have expressions we tend to overuse.)
Becca and I created The Emotion Thesaurus to help writers brainstorm unique ways to show any emotion, but having lists of body language, thoughts, visceral sensations and vocal cues is really just the starting gate. Each idea we provide needs to be tailored to a character if it is to become an authentic portrayal of their most honest feelings.
And here lies the biggest reason why emotion fails to draw readers in: the writer hasn’t gotten to know their character well enough to create tailored responses.
Your Character Is Unique…Their Emotional Responses Will Be, Too
We are all individuals, right? What makes us anxious, happy, jealous, etc. may be different, but even if an event triggered the same emotion for all of us, our reactions would still be unique. Put us both in a hospital waiting room as a loved one undergoes a risky surgery, for example. I might be a pacer, unable to sit still. I might go to the reception counter several times to ask questions they can’t answer, constantly text my family to keep them in the loop, and then discovering my phone battery has entered single digits, be unable to control the shrillness of my voice as I beg staff to use a hospital charger. You, on the other hand, might sit and not move, not for hours, frozen in time. Only your fingers are active, mercilessly picking at your cuticles until they bleed, completely unaware of the damage you’re doing to them.
Like us, our characters will have their own way of processing emotion, and to understand what that will look like, we need to know more about who they are.
Know Their Past
The people and situations from a character’s past will influence their behavior and who they ultimately became. A nurturing grandfather may have taught patience and encouraged the character to think things through before making decisions. A high-achieving parent might have instilled the idea that fortune favors the bold, and any action is better than none. Imprints are powerful. Think about who was influential in your character’s life, and how their worldview, beliefs, values (or lack) may have shaped your character.
Know Their Experiences
People have survival instincts, and your character will, too. Hardwired to watch for danger, experience informs your character, helping them spot potential problems as they go through life. Bad experiences may have made your character risk-adverse, and good ones, the opposite. Do you know how past positive and negative interactions steer them now? Do they invest their time, money, and hearts freely…or utterly refuse to?
Know Their Pain
Painful experiences can scar, not only physically but emotionally. The fear of pain is powerful, but the fear of emotional hurt can derail a person’s goals, damage relationships, make them avoid certain things, and leave them unhappy and unfulfilled.
Knowing your character’s emotional wounds will guide you to understanding what emotions they are sensitive to because those feeling bring them back to that past event that cut them deeply. When these emotions are triggered, your character will have a hard time controlling their responses and their behavior will become more volatile. They will become prone to negative coping mechanisms that can damage their life further.
Know Their Personality
Another facet of humanity is our personality. Certain traits, positive and negative, become part of us and help us solve problems, interact with others, and navigate life. Personality traits come with certain behaviors and inclinations, so knowing what these are will really help you line up emotional responses that fit a character’s personality like the proverbial glove.
Know Their Emotional Range
Personality, genetics, experiences, and personal preferences will create an emotional comfort zone of expressiveness. Understanding how a character behaves in everyday situations serves as your ground zero. Are they open and transparent with strangers, or protective of their thoughts and so keep to themselves? Do they talk a lot, or must words be pulled out of them? Do they make big movements, gesture as they speak, tell jokes, and revel in attention? Or do they listen rather than speak, choose stillness, and only shift and fiddle when put on the spot?
Once you get a feel for “typical” behavior it serves as a baseline and you can make sure their actions, choices, and decisions line up with these preferences. The baseline will become part of their emotional range, helping you plan what a typical response will look like vs. an extreme one. In this way, their responses will always ring true to readers!
Peel Back a Character’s Layers & Showing Emotion Gets Easier
Describing emotion in a way that readers will feel something isn’t easy, but it becomes easier when you really know who your character is and what’s steering their emotions. The more you unearth about someone, the more you will intuitively know what their actions, choices, and behaviors will look like, achieving that authenticity that hooks readers. So grab a notebook and start thinking about the things above, or use a tool like the Character Builder to help you.
Speaking of Emotion…Today Only
The Emotion Thesaurus Expanded Edition is Amazon.com & Amazon.ca’s Kindle Deal of the Day! So, if you’d like help with describing the body language, thoughts, visceral sensations, and vocal cues for 130 emotions, today’s the day to grab it. It’s only $1.49!
Want to see what emotions are included in this book, and how we’ve added more content to every entry? Here’s the list of emotions.