By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
One of the least effective ways to convey character emotions is to tell the reader what the character was feeling: fear, love, jealousy, anger. Before I go on to look at how we can create a rich emotional life for our characters that will touch our readers’ emotions, I think we need to break down why telling an emotion doesn’t work.
When we’re in the middle of an emotion, we don’t stop to think about what emotion we’re experiencing and to name it—we just experience it. The nature of emotions is that they tend to inhibit our ability to think logically and rationally. So when we label an emotion at the time our character is experiencing it, it feels like someone else is talking about that character or like our character is unrealistically self-aware.
Labeling an emotion also strips out everything that makes that emotion individual and fresh. It takes the personality out of it so that it lays flat on the page. We don’t learn anything about the character.
Despite this, many of us are tempted to label the character’s emotions in our writing because we don’t want to risk confusing the reader about what our character is feeling. We want to be sure they know.
Context should help alleviate confusion. (After all, if our character is grabbed from behind while walking down a dark alley, her racing heart probably isn’t due to love.)
But the real key to clear emotion that’s also going to resonate with the reader is adding in layers.
Layer #1 – The Physical Symptoms of the Emotion
Emotions affect us physically in visceral ways we can’t control. Our palms sweat. Our hands tremble. We gasp or yelp or screech.
When we put these reactions on the page, we’re not only reminding the reader of times they’ve felt those same physical symptoms. We’re also bringing them in close to our character so they’re experiencing the emotion from the inside rather than simply watching it from the outside.
(If you want to know more about visceral reactions, check out my guest post over at Jami Gold’s blog.)
Layer #2 – Character Thoughts and Dialogue
What a character thinks and what they say can give away what they’re feeling as well. Even more interesting at times is when what they think doesn’t match up with what they say. In those cases, we’re showing their true emotions and how those emotions contrast with how they feel they need to portray themselves to the people around them.
Layer #3 – Actions Your Character Would Do When Experiencing That Emotion
Our bodies speak to our emotions in big and small ways. An impatient character might bob the foot of their crossed leg. A character who received shocking news might sink into a chair. A character who is desperate might stretch their hands out toward the person they’re pleading with.
Allowing our characters to transmit their emotions in this way helps the reader understand what they’re feeling and it also adds depth.
Let’s look at a quick example. To add some context, our viewpoint character Becky has been waiting by the window for her husband to come home. He’s late.
The Telling Version:
A police car pulled to a stop in front of their house, and two officers got out. Fear shot through her.
The Showing Version With All Three Layers:
A police car pulled to a stop in front of their house, and two officers got out.
Trembling started in her fingers and worked its way up her arm like some kind of a localized seizure. She dropped the curtain into place, and took one step, two, back away from the window.
Craig wasn’t that late. He was flat tire late. Or traffic jam late. Or the-meeting-ran-long late. He wasn’t uniforms-notify-the-next-of-kin late.
Not every emotion needs this much emphasis. Not every moment in your story will be important enough to warrant it. But if your characters feel flat or if your emotions are coming across muddy, especially at times when their emotions are essential, then try adding in more layers.
Want more help bringing your characters and their internal lives to life for your readers?
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