Characters Emotions

Masterfully Showing Emotion in Your Characters

13 Aug 2019 Fiction

Guest post by C.S. Lakin

Effectively rendering emotion is challenging, but it’s a necessary skill if you’re a fiction writer.

Readers want to be moved and never forget what reaches their hearts. If we writers don’t carefully, masterfully evoke emotion, we fail as storytellers.

There are three main ways you can reveal emotions in your characters:

1) Using body language (revealing internal sensations)

2) Naming the emotion

3) Via the character’s thoughts

Writers often use a combination of these, and each has its merits and drawbacks. 

Let’s look at the challenge of “showing” emotion—and it’s more than throwing into a scene a clenched fist or a pounding heart.

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Emotions Are Often Hard to Detect

A person’s body both feels and reveals emotion. It can be felt internally without any outward sign. Conversely, emotions might be shown by body language without a person being conscious of the emotion. 

Physical tells can be powerful. Humans are keenly responsive to subtle gestures—a slight movement, even a flicker of the eyes can say so much. Intense emotions such as grief and fury can be revealed in barely noticeable expressions. We writers should take note.

What makes it challenging is that your POV character might talk and think in ways that show she’s clueless to what she’s feeling or what her body language is broadcasting. 

Just because I see you sigh or cry doesn’t mean I know what you are feeling. Body language can only go so far to effectively convey a character’s emotion.

It’s All about Your Character

Don’t feel the need to let the reader know the emotional state of everyone in every scene. 

Everything in a scene is shown through your POV character’s eyes—what she notices by paying attention at that moment. She may not notice others’ body language or be aware of her own emotions. 

Have you ever suddenly realized you were grinding your teeth, white-knuckling your steering wheel, or breathing fast? Often, someone else points out that we’re exuding emotion. We mostly pick up in ourselves a bodily sensation, not a visual. 

Let’s look at a passage from my drama Intended for Harm. Note the gestures, small actions implying emotion—both what the POV character notices in others and what you, the reader, notice in him:

Jake grabbed Simon’s T-shirt at the neckline. “Never meant what? Where is Shane?”

He didn’t need to hear their answer; the guilt saturated their faces, unmistakably.

Tears pooled in Levi’s eyes. “When Sh-shane came back to town about a w-week later, we arranged to m-m-meet him … up where he’d t-t-aken … taken Dinah …”

Levi gulped, closed his mouth. Jake saw him fight back those tears, knew he held them in not from embarrassment but from wanting to validate, not decry, his actions.

Simon stamped his foot, clearly did not want Levi to tell, but Jake would get it out of them.

Levi drew in a long breath that quavered. He continued. “We b-beat him up. But I guess we … got c-carried away.”

Jake opened his mouth but nothing came out. All his energy drained, and he wobbled on his feet. The words fluttered out his throat, like moths winging to flame, to their doom. “You killed him …”

Levi looked at the floor, but Simon met his gaze. “We carried the body to his car, then pushed it off the cliff. No one will find it—”

Jake’s knees gave way, and he collapsed on the concrete garage floor. He buried his face in his hands, disbelieving. “Oh, God … oh, God …”

Jake groaned, unaware and uncaring whether his boys were standing there or had left. The moment muddled, miring him like quicksand, sucking him down, down.

He heard Levi’s voice hovering near him. “Dad. It’ll b-be okay. There’s n-no way anyone can p-point to us. We wore g-gloves. No one knew Shane r-raped Dinah—no one b-b-but us. There’d be no r-reason for anyone to think we h-had anything to do with it—even if they f-find the c-car. They’ll think he d-drove off the cliff. He had d-drugs in his blood. They’d blame it on the d-drugs, Dad.”

The room went silent. “Just get out,” Jake said. He listened but heard no footsteps. He raised his head from where he lay curled up on the ground, looked at Simon, who stood there, thinking.

“What about Joey?” Simon asked, his voice thick with disgust.

“What about him?” Jake asked.

“How are we gonna get him to keep his trap shut? He blabs about everything, and he’ll tell someone.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Jake offered.

Simon snorted. “Like that will shut him up? You know how holy and righteous he is. He feels it’s his God-given duty to report all sin. To make sure evildoers are punished for their crimes—”

“I said I’ll talk to him!” Jake yelled through his dry throat, parched like the rest of his body, thirsting for relief but knowing not a single drop would be found.

“Levi, let’s go,” Simon said, stomping toward the garage door. 

Jake observes emotional tells in his boys. He doesn’t try to name the emotions his sons are feeling other than the obvious guilt on their faces, but these tells indicate they are distressed—tears, gulping, stomping, snorting. 

Jake, also, becomes aware of some of his own bodily sensations, visceral reactions to what he witnesses. He feels the energy drain from his body, he wobbles, his knees giving way as he falls.

Then there are the words and phrases that show Jake’s body language, implying emotion: burying his face in his hands, groaning, yelling.

3 Ways to Show Emotion

Here we see three facets of showing emotion via body language or sensations

1) What the character observes in others

2) What the character senses in his own body

3) What the author shows in the character, from outside the character’s direct perspective

With this third component, your POV character has to be aware that he’s showing these physical tells. Jake would be aware he’s yelling. But I’ve pointed out to my husband that he’s yelling, and he doesn’t realize it. Some don’t realize they’re crying until they notice their face is wet. Sometimes we don’t know we are groaning, crying, moaning, sighing, gasping, or even clenching our hands or jaw. 

Does it matter whether your POV character knows he is emoting? That depends on your purpose for showing it. Is it for the reader to sense emotion in the character? If your character is grasping his child’s shirt collar so hard he’s nearly strangling him, it may serve your scene to have the character not realize it until someone pulls him away.

You have to be careful here, because everything in a scene is coming through your character’s senses when you’re in deep POV. You can’t truly be in his POV if you show something he isn’t aware of. So while a character might not be paying attention to his fists clenching, on some level he has to be aware he’s doing that. 

Think of ways to reveal emotion your character might not want noticed. Think of things that might trigger emotion in your POV character. When Jake sees Simon stomp, he knows he’s signaling to his younger brother to shut up. Simon doesn’t want him to see that. 

It’s important for POV characters to notice others’ tones, expressions, and gestures. And another reason you should use them is that readers can’t read your mind. 

Keep these tips in mind, and you’ll be on your way to emotional mastery.

C.S. Lakin

C. S. Lakin is an editor, award-winning blogger, and author of twenty novels and the Writer’s Toolbox series of instructional books for novelists. She edits and critiques more than 200 manuscripts a year and teaches workshops and boot camps to help writers craft masterful novels. 

To become a masterful wielder of emotion, enroll in Lakin’s new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers, before September 1st, and get half off using this link.

Need help writing your novel? Click here to download Jerry's ultimate 12-step guide.