Those of you who are familiar with me know that Angela Ackerman and I talk a lot about emotion. A LOT.
That’s because we believe that clearly conveying emotion—particularly that of the protagonist or viewpoint character—plays an important role in building reader empathy. If we can build a strong connection for the reader, they’ll become invested in the character and be more likely to keep reading.
The other reason character emotion is so important is that it draws the reader into the story. If we’re able to show emotion well, we heighten the reader’s experience; instead of them sitting back and being told about the character’s emotions, they’re feeling them as the story goes along. They’re invited to share in the journey.
That level of engagement is critical if we’re going to pull readers into our stories and keep them there.
Quick Recap: How to Show a Viewpoint Character’s Emotion
Here’s an example of character emotion that has been shown, taken from the 2nd Edition of the Emotion Thesaurus:
JoAnne sat on the chair’s edge, spine straight as a new pencil, and stared into Mr. Paxton’s face. Sixteen years she’d given him—days she was sick, days the kids were sick—making the trip back and forth across town on that sweaty bus. Now he wouldn’t even look at her, just kept fiddling with her folder and pushing around the fancy knickknacks on his desk. Maybe he didn’t want to give her the news, but she wasn’t gonna make it easy for him.
Mr. Paxton cleared his throat for the hundredth time. The vinyl of JoAnne’s purse crackled and she lightened her grip on it. Her picture of the kids was in there and she didn’t want it creased.
“JoAnne…Mrs. Benson…it appears that your position with the company is no longer—”
JoAnne jerked to her feet, sending her chair flying over the tile. It hit the wall with a satisfying bang as she stormed out of the office.
Through a combination of body language, thoughts, and reactions, we can see what JoAnne is feeling without her ever stating it outright. And because we’ve also learned something about who she is and where she’s coming from, our empathy is piqued. So showing emotion for our protagonist pays off in spades.
But How Do I Show Emotions for Other Characters?
That example may not be news to you, since the importance of showing emotion has been discussed quite a bit. What hasn’t been talked much about is how to convey the feelings of a non-viewpoint character (NVPC).
Unless you’re writing in omniscient viewpoint, you’ll need to stick closely to your main character’s point of view and won’t be able to share what’s happening internally for anyone else. So how do you convey the emotions of the other people in your story?
Technique #1: Outer Manifestations
When you’re in the main character’s head, you can’t access the thoughts and internal sensations of other cast members to show what they’re feeling. But you can use the outer manifestations of their emotions because the viewpoint character will be able to notice those.
In the example above, we can tell that Mr. Paxton is uncomfortable, maybe even nervous, about giving JoAnne the news. We know this because of what the viewpoint character is able to observe: the fiddling with knickknacks and his frequent clearing of the throat.
When we’re revealing the emotion of a NVPC, we can’t utilize all the same techniques that we could for the protagonist, but we can use the ones that are noticeable by others, such as:
- body language
- facial expressions
- vocal shifts
- changes in posture and personal space
Technique #2: The Viewpoint Character’s Response
Mr. Paxton’s fussing and throat clearing aren’t enough to show exactly what he’s feeling because they could represent numerous things, such as restlessness, excitement, or nervousness. But JoAnne’s response to these clues clarifies his state.
Through her thoughts, we learn that her boss is reluctant to give her the news; that information provides some much-needed context to help us understand what Mr. Paxton is feeling. Thoughts can work well to show the viewpoint character’s response; so can body language and the decisions they make during or following an interaction.
Technique #3: Dialogue and Vocal Cues
When we’re feeling emotional, one of the ways it comes through is in our speech patterns. Sometimes this can be shown through vocal cues (changes in pitch, tone, speed of speech, word usage, etc.), such as Mr. Paxton’s hesitations.
It can also be shown through the words themselves—say, if a character is ranting about the events leading up to his current emotional state. The reader will be able to combine this verbal context with the nonverbal body language to figure out what emotion is being felt.
Technique #4: Avoidances
If a NVPC’s emotions are uncomfortable ones, this can lead them to avoid certain things associated with them: a person, a place, a situation, specific questions, or a topic of conversation.
One of the clues to Mr. Paxton’s emotional state is his procrastination—how he’s putting off the difficult job of letting JoAnne go. She’s been sitting there a while, long enough to get pretty worked up as she watches him dither. His avoidance of the conversation itself shows a high level of discomfort, putting his emotional state into perspective for the reader.
Technique #5: Fight, Flight, or Freeze Reactions
When a character feels threatened, certain emotions will come into play. In these situations, a character may get confrontational, beat a hasty exit, or turn into the proverbial deer in the headlights.
Just as real-life people have a fight, flight, or freeze response to threatening scenarios, characters should, too. If you know which way your character leans, you can write their reactions in a way that readers (who are familiar with these responses) will be able to identify the emotion at work.
Technique #6: Changes to the Character’s Baseline
One vital part of writing emotion well is doing some research beforehand to figure out your character’s emotional range. This enables you to write him or her consistently throughout the story.
Then, when something happens that impacts their emotions, they’ll deviate from that norm, and readers will notice the shift. Changes in the voice, speech patterns, body language, how the character interacts with or responds to others, new avoidances—anything that alters their typical behavior can become a red flag for readers, letting them know that emotions are in flux.
As you can see, you have a lot of resources when it comes to writing the emotions of non-viewpoint characters. Some of them can work in isolation, but many of them should be used in tandem to help clarify things for the reader.
Use some visible body language while also noting the viewpoint character’s response to it. Show the character’s avoidance along with a persistent vocal cue to make the emotion clear. Use a flight response to a seemingly unthreatening situation along with a bit of dialogue to shed some light on what’s happening.
With a combination of these techniques, you’ll be able to paint a complete picture of any non-viewpoint character’s emotions without hopping heads and pulling readers out of the story.
For more information on showing character emotion effectively, check out the 2nd edition of The Emotion Thesaurus and this list of resources.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.