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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Showing Character Emotion

Recently my critique group tackled the question of how to show emotion rather than telling. On the surface, it seems like an easy answer: use physical reactions. Granted, this is better than stating Jane felt sad, but using tears to show sadness or a pounding heart to show fear is only one step up from telling how a character feels.

For a while I’ve been bugged by my characters repeatedly having the same reactions. If a doctor examined my characters, she would order an upper GI for their frequent gastrointestinal problems, an EKG to explore the reason for their racing hearts, and a psych eval to figure out why in the world they are smiling and laughing all the time.

After our group discussion, I pulled out a book I bought several months ago but hadn’t had time to read in depth. Creating Character Emotion by Ann Hood. You know those moments when things click and all of a sudden you slap your forehead and say, “Duh! How did I not know this earlier?” No? You don’t slap your forehead? Er, right, me either. Anyhoo… I want to share some of what I took away from Ms. Hood’s book and encourage you to check it out for yourself. There is more to gain from her wisdom than what I’m writing about today.

To describe a character’s eyes as filling with tears does its job. It conveys sadness, at least within certain contexts since we sometimes cry when we’re happy, too. Tears get across the basic message. The character is sad. Ms. Hood calls it emotional shorthand. This is a basic level skill.

When I was learning to how to counsel others, our class started with foundational skills. One of those techniques was called reflection where the counselor repeats what he thinks the client said using his own words. The goal is to continue to build upon basic level skills and add more difficult techniques to the skill set.

It’s easy to spot a student who has learned reflection or someone who never mastered the other skills. You will hear, “What you’re saying is…”, which is fine if the interaction is then followed up with other skills like clarification, reframing, and empathic responding.

The same is true in writing emotion. It isn’t wrong to have a character cry or even to have a character say, "I'm sad", but to stop there leaves the reader feeling unfulfilled. Going beyond the basic techniques is what makes the difference between a good book and a great book.
Here are just some of the advanced skills we can learn:
1) Use fresh language. If using one of the obvious signs of an emotion, write it in a novel way. This will likely mean using trial and error, but it also means discarding our first thought. The example Ms. Hood uses is from Susan Taylor Chehak's Smithereens. Instead of the phrase “her heart pounded” Ms. Chehak wrote this: "I could feel the awkward, scared tumble of my heartbeat."

2) Use clues in the environment. Paint a picture of the emotion by using setting and wardrobe details. Think about what you would expect to find if you walked into the living room of someone who recently went through a bad break-up. Perhaps there would be crumpled fast food containers littering the coffe table, an empty wine bottle or two, waded up tissues, a container of chocolate ice cream with a spoon sticking out of it, the curtains drawn. Maybe the character is wearing Bugs Bunny PJs and flip flops with her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. Her eyes are red and swollen from crying and lack of sleep. Sinead O’Connor’s haunting voice belts out “Nothing Compares 2 U” from the sound system. Man, now I'm depressed!

3) Make use of point of view. Dialog and interior monologue reveal how a person views the world, because our emotions are what color that world. A person in love may notice the birds singing, think the sky is bluer, brighter than usual, and thinks how sweet the older couple in the park is as they walk arm-in-arm while ignoring the park bench covered in pigeon droppings.

4) Use contradiction. Have your character say the opposite of what his body language is communicating, or have him behave in unpredictable ways. I have a scene in an upcoming book where the villain is nonchalantly discussing animals of a predatory nature with one of his lackeys who has told him something he doesn't want to hear. The lackey is oblivious to the danger, but the reader picks up on the tension and knows something bad is going to happen.

5) Symbolism can convey emotion. Ms. Hood used an example of a scene written by one of her students about a couple on the verge of a divorce, but instead of talking about the state of their marriage they were discussing a chip in the wedding china. What a great image. The wedding china represents all the hopes and dreams of the couple starting out only for them to learn later their marriage is just as breakable as china dishes.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you find your characters behaving in the same ways or having the same physical reactions? If so, what do you use most often?


  1. These are fantastic examples. Thanks so much for doing this blog. I'll save it for the next time my characters heart is racing, pounding, thudding. . .you get the idea :)

  2. This post came at the right time for me. I blogged today on my chapter's blog (Romance Magicians) about the difficulty I'm having with showing emotion. These suggestions help tremendously (thank you Julie for sending me to this blog!!).

  3. Great post, Samantha. These are wonderful suggestions, and I am going to check out that book ASAP. I do find myself writing basic body language cues, all too often. I have gotten to the point I try and go back and read for this and remove most of them or add my own special something to them. I tend to have people glaring way too much, so I have to really watch for that. In my first novel, the heroine cried so much, she must have been swimming in her own tears! I have found that going deeper into pov really helps me. I say just what the character would blurt when confronted with a situation and the dialogue often conveys what I need it to with a few words and maybe an action.

    **Posted on Julie's behalf

  4. Clarissa,

    I have to thank you for being the driving force behind me pursuing more information on conveying emotion. I knew it needed my attention, but our discussion motivated me to think about things in a different light.

  5. Heather,

    I'm so glad you stopped by and found these tips helpful. I'm going to pop by your blog in a minute, because I would love to read some of your thoughts on this topic. :)

  6. Julie,

    I'm sorry blogger was being uncooperative today. Sometimes she gets a bee in her bonnet. ;)

    "swimming in her own tears" LOL. It's it funny how we naturally fall back on certain behaviors? Going deeper into the character's point of view is a great way to do more than gloss over an emotion.

  7. Great post. Sometimes, I have to embody/channel my character to get the right way she would act emotionally.

  8. Vicki,

    That sounds interesting. How do you go about channeling your character? Do you have a specific technique? I've had conversations with my characters, which has been enlightening.

  9. Samatha,

    I've struggled with emotion for a long time now and I've got the basics down but like you, I knew I had to go deeper. So now that I know what my weakest skill is, it makes it easer to pin point what I need to focus on. My newest short story release will be this week and luckily, I really believe I've hit a milestone on showing the emotion despite it being so short, it's packed full of feeling. *Patting myself on the back because it's a very difficult thing to do* Now if only I could incorporate some of what I've learned into my longer wip's. lol. These are excellent tips and some of these I haven't heard yet, so I'm definetly going to be trying them out in my next project.


  10. Suzie,

    Congratulations on your release this week, and how exciting to know you've reached a milestone in your writing. I know you are a hardworking author. Best wishes!

  11. Oh wow. Great post. The things you've mentioned have only really clicked for me too in the last three months so a refresher on the subject really helps it stick in my mind. Have you ever watched the show, Lie to Me? The first season is brilliant for explaining the things people do with their body that often negates their words. Things you simply accept or overlook. I'd recommend watching for the small tips that can lead to some really great showing. But that book you have is now on my must read pile. :o)

  12. I wonder if I can find Lie to Me on Netflix. I remember you mentioning it a long time ago, but I never got to watch it. I'm going to look for it now. :)

  13. For me the hardest part is struggling to come up with unique ways to say the same thing--physically and internally--when the person is in a powerful emotional moment. Sometimes I am afraid to dig deep within myself to discover that reaction, but it is the key. I'm limping forward in this lesson on writing. I feel it is an area I need to really become organic in--at least during revisions!

    Thanks for a great post! I'll definitely check out the book!

  14. Christine,

    I think coming up with fresh ways to say the same thing is a challenge for all of us. And when the emotions are uncomfortable ones, it's hard to want to dig deep enough to feel them. I'm limping right along with you in this lesson, but I expect eventually we'll both be sprinting. :)

  15. Fantastic post. The examples suggest multiple layers for conveying emotions. Lately, I've been in the habit of letting my characters tell me how they're thinking, feeling, and responding. I do this after a scene with a simple sequel outline: 1. Emotion; 2. Quandary; 3. Decision; 4. Action. I write the sequel in first person, even though my novels, so far, are in 3rd person. Most of these explorations don't make it into the story. But I've been getting some surprising and powerful results that help me understand my character, things that never would have occurred to me, and sometimes I'll use a snippet or two.

  16. Peter,

    Thanks for sharing your techinque. I'm going to give your method a try. It sounds like a great way to get in touch with the character, which I find is often my biggest obstacle, not fully understanding where my character is coming from.