Character Development: Emotions

Severe emotional shock strikes us with a one-two-three punch. When you dissect them, you will see that all emotions, from the mildest to the strongest, affect us both physically and mentally in a 1-2-3 order:

  1. Initial gut reaction
  2. Flash of mental processing
  3. Body language, expression, etc.

WritingCraftSeries_character-arcWhen we write mild reactions, it’s unnecessary to offer too many emotional descriptions because mild is boring.

But if you want to emphasize the chemistry between two characters, good or bad, strong gut reactions on the part of your protagonist are a good way to do so.

I often use examples of simple emotions from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The prose has power despite the fact it was written a century ago.

About The Great Gatsby, via Wikipedia:

The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel by American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Set in the Jazz Age on Long Island, near New York City, the novel depicts first-person narrator Nick Carraway‘s interactions with mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and Gatsby’s obsession to reunite with his former lover, Daisy Buchanan.

The novel was inspired by a youthful romance Fitzgerald had with socialite Ginevra King and the riotous parties he attended on Long Island’s North Shore in 1922. Following a move to the French Riviera, Fitzgerald completed a rough draft of the novel in 1924. He submitted it to editor Maxwell Perkins, who persuaded Fitzgerald to revise the work over the following winter. After making revisions, Fitzgerald was satisfied with the text, but remained ambivalent about the book’s title and considered several alternatives. Painter Francis Cugat‘s cover art greatly impressed Fitzgerald, and he incorporated aspects of it into the novel. [1]

The following passages show us what is going on inside Nick Carraway, the protagonist. Every word is placed intentionally, put in that place for a reason, meant to evoke a strong reaction in the reader.

Here, Fitzgerald describes a feeling of hopefulness:

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees—just as things grow in fast movies—I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.

Next, he describes shock:

It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.


Her expression was curiously familiar—it was an expression I had often seen on women’s faces but on Myrtle Wilson’s face it seemed purposeless and inexplicable until I realized that her eyes, wide with jealous terror, were fixed not on Tom, but on Jordan Baker, whom she took to be his wife.

f scott fitzgerald The Great GatsbyThe discomfort of witnessing a marital squabble:

The prolonged and tumultuous argument that ended by herding us into that room eludes me, though I have a sharp physical memory that, in the course of it, my underwear kept climbing like a damp snake around my legs and intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back.

We not only see Nick’s emotions – we see his view of everyone else’s emotions, shown by his view of their physical reactions. We are never told what people feel but are shown through visual cues and conversations.

Choose a narrative POV and stick with it. Whether we are writing in the first-person or close third-person point of view, seeing the reactions of others is a key to conveying the sometimes-tumultuous dynamics of any group.

Writing emotions with depth is a balancing act. The internal indicator of a particular emotion is only half the story. We see those reactions in the characters’ body language.

This is where we write from real life. When someone is happy, what do you see on the outside? Bright eyes, laughter, and smiles.

When a friend looks happy, you assume you know what they feel on the inside. You presume they feel energized, confident.

So now you need to combine the surface of the emotion (physical) with the deeper aspect of the emotion (internal). Not only that, but we want to write it so that we aren’t telling the reader what to experience.

We allow the reader to decide what to feel. We must make the emotion seem as if it is the reader’s feeling.

If you have no idea how to begin showing the basic emotions of your characters, a good handbook that offers a jumping-off point is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

Their entire series of Writers Helping Writers books is quite affordable and full of hints that you can use to give depth to your characters.

emotion-thesaurus-et-alJust don’t go overboard. They will offer nine or ten hints that are physical indications for a wide range of surface emotions. You can usually avoid dragging the reader through numerous small facial changes in a scene simply by giving their internal reactions a little thought.

I usually reread The Great Gatsby every summer, along with several other classic novels in various genres.

Fitzgerald’s prose is written in the literary style of the 1920s. It was a time in which we still liked words and the many ways they could be used and abused, hence the massive amount of Jazz Age slang that seems incomprehensible to us only a century later.

Students taking college-level classes in literature and English are often required to read The Great Gatsby and other classic novels from that era, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses.

While these novels are too complex for most people’s casual reading, there is a reason why these books are still required.

We twenty-first-century writers can learn something important from studying how Fitzgerald showed his characters’ thoughts and internal reactions. We can convey a wide range of emotions without resorting to cliché descriptions.

Next in this series, we’ll explore some of the trickier aspects of showing a character’s physical reaction.

Previous posts in this series:

Storyboarding character development 

Character Development: Motivation drives the story 

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “The Great Gatsby,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed July 31, 2021).

Quotes from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, © 1925 Charles Scribner’s Sons. PD|75 Fair Use.

Original Cover of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, © 1925 Charles Scribner’s Sons. Cover artist: Francis Cugat. PD|75 Fair Use.


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