Angela Ackerman and I got our start telling anyone who was interested (and some who weren’t) what we’d learned about the importance of showing a character’s feelings. So I’ll start with a quote from The Emotion Thesaurus about why it’s so important for every author to get this right:
All successful novels, no matter what genre, have one thing in common: emotion. It lies at the core of every character’s decision, action, and word, all of which drive the story. Without emotion, a character’s personal journey is pointless. Stakes cease to exist. The plot line becomes a dry riverbed of meaningless events that no reader will take time to read. Why? Because above all else, readers pick up a book to have an emotional experience.
But they don’t want to be told how a character feels; they want to experience the emotion for themselves. To make this happen, we must ensure that our characters express their feelings in ways that are both recognizable and compelling to read.
How we convey a character’s emotional state is vital to the reader’s experience. They don’t want to be bashed over the head with this information, nor do they appreciate clunky methods that jerk them out of the story. This is where show-don’t-tell comes into play. Show the character’s emotion through their natural responses to it, and readers will figure it out on their own. Use universal responses, and you’ll have the added benefit of readers connecting to the character through a sense of shared experience.
Let me show you what I mean with a universal feeling that should come into play multiple times for your character throughout their story.
Insecurity: No One’s Favorite Feeling
Personally, I’m not a fan of this emotion. It’s uncomfortable, embarrassing, and makes me feel weak. But I love it for my characters because it inherently builds empathy. Every reader on the planet has experienced insecurity—often at crucial moments—and they know how awful it is. Seeing someone they care about stumbling through it tugs at the reader’s heartstrings and makes them root for that character.
Insecurity is also important because it often plays into the character’s arc. Maybe they want to reach for a goal but don’t feel worthy of attaining it. Or they desperately want esteem and recognition from others but they’re too scared of failure to make the effort. Typically, it’s this very insecurity the character will have to overcome if they want to win in the story, so you definitely want to include it.
If your character is going to struggle with this emotion, it’s important to be able to show it clearly. And the best way to do this is for them to respond to it with one of the following tells.
Insecurity is never comfortable. Your character would much rather be seen as confident and capable, so when they’re feeling the opposite, they’re going to try and hide it. One way they might do this is through overcompensating.
We often see this with characters who fit the macho stereotype: bullies, jocks, divas, CEOs, world leaders, etc. For popular examples, look at many of Stephen King’s minor villains, who tend to throw their weight around to hide their weaknesses. Harold Lauder (The Stand) is condescending and off-putting, leaning on his intelligence to overcome his physical shortcomings. Percy Wetmore (The Green Mile) disguises his cowardice and inadequacy by becoming a corrections officer, where he can bully the death-row inmates, who are at his mercy.
Risk-Aversion and Avoidance
Other characters will head the opposite direction, going out of their way to avoid the situations that make them feel unsure of themselves. A good example of this is A Few Good Men’s Daniel Kaffee. He’s grown up in the shadow of his successful father and is convinced he could never compare as a trial lawyer, so he plea-bargains all his cases. This allows him to remain a lawyer without ever stepping foot in a courtroom.
Another avoidance response you might see in an insecure character is the decision not to act. A character with this MO will take a backseat in their own life, letting other people make the important decisions. This way, they don’t have to take responsibility or ownership in the situations that make them feel uncomfortable. Underachievers very often respond this way.
The third installment of the Rocky franchise opens with the hero getting completely destroyed by a nobody. This demoralizing defeat, combined with the death of his manager, throws Rocky into a tailspin. When a rematch is declared, he accepts the offer but doesn’t fully commit, allowing himself to be distracted and only go so far in his training. Why? Because he’s convinced he can’t win.
Characters who are afraid of their own insecurities but don’t want to surrender outright may choose to go this route. They might only half-try, or they’ll adopt dysfunctional behaviors that will take them out of the running before they have a chance to fail.
Keeping it Real
It’s important to note that most people aren’t insecure in a general sense; this feeling typically crops up in specific situations. Going back to Daniel Kaffee: you wouldn’t define him as insecure. He’s actually quite confident—personable and charming, lots of friends, an athlete, with a respectable job as a lawyer. It’s only in certain scenarios that his self-doubt comes through.
This is a much more realistic picture of insecurity; it’s situational. Make sure your characters are well-rounded by giving them skills and strengths, areas in which they excel. Then, when they’re facing a challenge that makes them feel small and incapable, the contrast in their response will show readers what’s up.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze?
One last thing to note about this emotion: how your character responds to insecurity will depend on their fight, flight, or freeze response. If they tend toward fighting, they’ll likely become more aggressive, overcompensating for whatever failing (perceived or real) they’re trying to hide. A character who is more likely to flee or freeze will have an avoidance or self-sabotage response as they try to escape the threatening situation. So definitely do your homework in this area, because knowing your character’s natural tendency will give you a good idea of how they’ll respond when insecurity crops up.
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.