The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression

Struggle with how to show, not tell a character’s feelings? Need help creating fresh body language that doesn’t come off as stale or cliché? 

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression is a writer’s best friend, helping to navigate the difficult terrain of showing character emotion. Through an easy-to-use list format, this brainstorming tool explores seventy-five emotions and provides a large selection of body language, internal sensations, actions and thoughts associated with each.

For more information on this bestselling writing resource, read a few of the over 1000 reviews left by writers just like you or visit Goodreads and add it to your list. You can also click on the image below for a free preview.

The Emotion Thesaurus is used by editors, agents and authors worldwide and is required reading for several University-level Creative Writing programs in the United States. It has also been translated into multiple languages.

Emotion Thesaurus Buzz: 

“One of the challenges a fiction writer faces, especially when prolific, is coming up with fresh ways to describe emotions. This handy compendium fills that need. It is both a reference and a brainstorming tool, and one of the resources I’ll be turning to most often as I write my own books.”
~ James Scott Bell, bestselling author of Deceived and Plot & Structure

103 Responses to The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression

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  4. Kate Rauner says:

    This is a great resource. Have you considered an entry for Sarcasm? People use this all the time in real-life, but how to show it in writing without adding “s/he said sarcastically” Any suggestions right now?

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  7. AlexaFaie says:

    The sample of this is actually quite helpful for a probably totally unintentional reason. I am a recently diagnosed autistic adult and have struggled all my life with being able to “appropriately” communicate with others. Especially the bit on “melodrama” where you talk about extreme outward expressions of emotion being disbelieved because “in real life, emotion isn’t always so demonstrative.” I wonder if this is why I am always disbelieved when I express my emotions – because they always tend to the extreme. It’s extremely hurtful to have people dismiss your experiences just because you express them too loudly so it must be fake. I learned the hard way that I had to repress all emotion as much as possible because otherwise I would be criticised and disbelieved.

    So reading something like this (whilst trying to learn more about how to describe my emotions so that others don’t dismiss me) has been a bit of an eye opener into how neurotypical people/society sees emotions/behaviours. I also saw another post elsewhere which listed body language for different emotions and that has really helped too since it explains why not making eye contact is seen as such a bad thing – it shows up as a “symptom” of boredom, deception, embarrassment, dishonesty (it mentions honesty as involving maintaining eye contact), secretiveness, shame, and shyness. When in reality it just feels like the most personal thing (other than sex) you can do with someone – it’s this intense feeling that with the right person can be an amazing send shivers down your spine kind of thing, even erotic. Which honestly is NOT something that is going to feel comfortable with just anyone and especially not the kinds of people who tend to demand it – parents, teachers and so on. Being forced to maintain eye contact feels like being forced to engage in something sexual you are not comfortable with and you are just expected to accept it as a normal part of being part of society. As a child it just felt wrong and too intense.

    So maybe a tip to neurotypical writers wanting to write an autistic character – expect that they express emotions differently and what might seem melodramatic for an allistic person might actually be normal for the autistic person. Often our difficulties with expressing emotions is that we do so so intensely that they are disbelieved or ignored and create confusion within ourselves. Emotions can be very overwhelming for the autistic person and they may try to shut them down because they are too loud to process properly. Some of us struggle to identify what emotions we are feeling because they don’t always make it past the physical sensation stage. A racing heartbeat can be anything from anxiety to excitement to arousal to anger and without the ability to put the feelings into words properly, it can be difficult to tell exactly what we might be feeling. Often our body language doesn’t match our inside emotions. In that list elsewhere, gesturing with your hands/flapping them/hand waving can be signs of exasperation and even contempt! But a lot of autistic people flap and wave their hands because they are very happy and excited. Basically lots of “negative” emotion body language is common autistic body language which doesn’t mean the same thing. No wonder there is so much confusion!

    • AlexaFaie says:

      Also wanted to add that the first description about the break up scene in the car seemed far more realistic than the second drawn out version. For me at least, I will experience the extreme emotion immediately like the break up –> don’t care if live or die. It’s like my brain just dumps me right in the deep end. Only later on with lots and lots of rumination on what I was feeling am I able to break it down into slower more logical steps. My brain will then furnish me with explanations. So to me it would happen more like the first example, then would cut to a scene later lying in bed going through everything and the second bit almost being an imagined conversation. In the moment I won’t know *why* I am feeling __insert strong emotion here__ about something, just that I am. My Mum upset me the other day on the phone and I was in tears (on and off as I relived it) for the rest of the day and going over why I felt so upset to make sense of it all. Allistic people might not have ended up experiencing it so “melodramatically” but for me that’s the only way I can experience emotions. The other option is total suppression which has had a terrible effect on my mental health. The reason I experience emotions like this isn’t psychological, it’s neurological but it’s still a valid way of experiencing it.

      • AlexaFaie says:

        And the bit about the Valedictorian (not sure what that is but the person is obviously happy about it) again sounds like an autistic example. That thought based monologue? PERFECT way of describing the reaction and I really feel for the character. Though it is “nice” to realise that how you experience things comes across as odd. (Insert sarcastic voice). Why would you say some of that stuff out loud? It doesn’t make sense! The excited hug speaks volumes and it makes far more sense to keep the “take that” bit inside as it’s rude to say that sort of thing out loud. You keep that kind of thing to yourself. The most I might be able to verbally express in that situation would be an excited squeal! Too much feels to put into words!

        So yeah, if you want to write autistic characters please break the rules and do what this is telling you not to do. It’s far more realistic to how at least this one autistic person experiences things.

      • Absolutely valid! And again, provided the author shows the “why” it will be accepted by the reader even if it is not the same as their own personal experiences when it comes to responding to an emotionally charged situation.

    • Yes, there are many ways that a character on the autistic spectrum, or with a condition like Alexithymia, emotional agnosia, or some types of mental illness, would have to portray a character differently. There are also cultural differences to consider; eye contact is a sign of interest, engagement, respect, etc. but in other cultures it may be viewed as challenging, rude, and antagonistic.

      In any story (provided we clearly show any personality or cognitive factors that cause a certain type of emotional responses) we can make the character’s responses come across as genuine, even if they are atypical. A great example of this is the book, The Rosie Project.

      Thanks for weighing in!

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  11. Zandile Tshabalala says:

    I’m a beginner/ new writer,I have not published any book but when I look here really this help you have provided is good,very good.
    I just wana say thank you,hope to finish my book next year.

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  70. LeslieZ says:

    I find myself recommending this great resource all the time – so I posted a brief blurb on my blog. Thank you so much for a wonderful tool!

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  76. Godel Fishbreath says:

    The Emotional Thesaurus is a great work. But it could use some more links between emotions, back links to places already linked, etc.
    For example:

    But Love, Desire etc do not back link to Adoration. And Adoration does not side link to its opposite, nor to Envy. There are many links missing. It would be better with a better link pack.
    And I could, in the future, note emotions that are not lisMAY ESCALATE TO: LOVE, DESIRE, FRUSTRATION, HURT

    Maybe I and others could help?

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  80. pam says:

    Hi Angela,
    Book looks interesting. 75 emotions! I thought I had only 4. 😉 Will check it out on Amazon.
    PS – I noticed the word “not” seems to be missing from this sentence: “Need help creating fresh body language that does come off as stale or cliché?” Sorry, couldn’t figure out how to reach you with a private message.

    • Pam thanks! How embarrassing–so glad you caught that. It’s funny, you look at something so much, you cease to “see” it…this is why proofreaders and critique partners are worth their weight in gold!

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  82. Shirley Artson says:

    I have not purchased your book, but I fully intend to do so. I’m a new writer and I have been looking for good tools and resources.

    • Thanks so much, Shirley–I hope it helps! Amazon has the search inside feature that helps show what this book is like, because it’s not a typical writing book. have a peek if you like!

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