Tag Archives: showing emotions in writing

Character Development: Showing Emotions

Most authors who have been in writing groups for any length of time become adept at writing emotions on a surface level. We bandage our wounded egos and work at showing our characters’ inner demons. We spend hours writing and rewriting, forcing words into facial expressions.

depth-of-characterHappiness, anger, spite – all the emotions get a description. Eyebrows raise or draw together; foreheads crease and eyes twinkle; shoulders slump and hands tremble. Lips turn up, lips curve down, and eyes spark – and so on and so on.

Using facial expressions as dialogue tags can work when done sparingly and combined with a conversation.

But that solution can easily become a crutch that keeps us from delving deeper into our characters.

Also, it’s aggravating when it becomes repetitive.

And this brings me to the core of this post. In the early drafts of my most recent work in progress, I struggled to give my characters balanced personalities. During NaNoWriMo, when I was writing new words as quickly as I could, I leaned too heavily on the external, with a LOT of smiling and shrugging.

Those facial expressions were code words for the second draft, places where more work would be required to flesh out the scene.

Nothing is more ordinary than a story where a person’s facial expressions take center stage, hollow displays of emotion with no substance. Lips stretch into smiles, but the musculature of the face is only a small part of the signals that reveal the character’s interior emotions.

Then, there are the stories where the author leans too heavily on the internal. Creased foreheads are replaced with stomach-churning, gut-wrenching shock, or wide-eyed trembling of hands.

And don’t forget the recurring moments of weak-kneed nausea.

the balanced narrativeFor me, the most challenging part of writing the final draft of any novel is balancing the visual indicators of emotion with the more profound, internal clues.

It takes effort to write a narrative so that we aren’t telling the reader what to experience. We allow the reader to infer what to feel (remember we are still in the inferential layer of the Word-Pond). We must make the emotion feel as if it is the reader’s idea.

If you haven’t seen this before, here is my list of surface emotions:

  • Admiration
  • Affection
  • Anger
  • Anguish
  • Anticipation
  • Anxiety
  • Awe
  • Confidence
  • Contempt
  • Defeat
  • Defensiveness
  • Denial
  • Depression
  • Desire
  • Desperation
  • Determination
  • Disappointment
  • Disbelief
  • Disgust
  • Elation
  • Embarrassment
  • Ethical Quandary
  • Fear
  • Friendship
  • Grief
  • Happiness
  • Hate
  • Inadequacy
  • Indecision
  • Interest
  • Jealousy
  • Love
  • Lust
  • Powerlessness
  • Pride
  • Regret
  • Resistance
  • Revulsion
  • Sadness
  • Shock
  • Surprise
  • Temptation
  • Trust
  • Unease
  • Weakness

These are emotions you can show with either a facial expression or a physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations.

emotion-thesaurus-et-alI have mentioned The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Sometimes all we need is a hint of how to show what a character is feeling, someone to point the way when we’re suffering from a blank mind.

Just don’t go overboard when describing emotions, as it can turn into mawkishness, maudlin caricatures of emotions, and over-the-top melodrama.

Readers form mental visions of the scenes you describe, and you don’t want them to find your protagonist’s reactions repulsive.

A few subtle physical hints and some internal dialogue laced into the narrative show a rounded character, one who is not mentally unhinged.

Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. We have deep-rooted, personal reasons for our emotions.  Our characters must have credible reasons, too. A flash of memory or a sensory prompt can inspire emotions that a reader can empathize with.

Why does a blind alley or a vacant lot make a character nervous?

Why does a grandmother hoard food?

Why does the sight of daisies make an old woman smile?

Writing genuine emotions requires practice and thought. Motivation is the foundation of emotion in a narrative. If a character’s eyes light up at the sight of daisies, WHY does she react with that emotion?

Emotions that are undermotivated have no base for existence, no foundation. They lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is shallow, a lot of noise about nothing.

Timing and pacing are essential. Let’s say the sight of a river sparks a memory.

The emotion hits, and the character processes it, experiencing a physical reaction.

If something sparks a memory that advances the plot or explains something about the character, simply mention it in passing. That way, you avoid dumping backstory, and the reader can extrapolate the needed information.

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusOpen the thesaurus and find words that carry visual impact in your narrative, and you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description.

Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience of the narrative, dulling the emotional impact of what could be a highly charged scene.

Balancing the internal and external reactions our characters experience is necessary. Otherwise, all we have is a bunch of drama queens on a quest for sanity instead of heroes looking to rid the world of evil.

The books I love are written with bold, strong words and phrasing. The emotional lives of their characters are real and immediate to me. Those are the kind of characters that have depth and are memorable.

Homework assignment: A good exercise for writing deep emotions is to create scenes involving characters you currently have no use for.

  1. My Coffee Cup © cjjasp 2013The setting is a coffee shop.
  2. You must create two to four characters.
  3. One of them is hiding a gun.
  4. One of them is angry.
  5. Give them conversations and mental dialogue and practice using their body language instead of dialogue tags.

Mixing body language into paragraphs in place of dialogue tags to show who is speaking serves several purposes:

  • It describes what they are thinking and feeling in fewer words.
  • It keeps the “he said, they said” problem down to a dull roar.

Again, common sense is required, or the scene becomes nothing but words followed by grimaces, foot shuffling, and paper rattling.

Remember, just as in all the many other skills necessary to the craft of writing a balanced narrative, practice is required.

PREVIOUS POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Storyboarding character development 

Character Development: Motivation drives the story 

Character Development: Emotions

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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.

Jealousy:

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, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Great_Gatsby&oldid=1036037007 (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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Emotions: Sharks in the Inferential Layer of the Word-Pond #amwriting

To write characters with emotional depth, you must dive into the waters where the sharks of show-don’t-tell lurk, waiting to bite your… backside.

Most authors who have been in writing groups for any length of time become adept at writing emotions on a surface level. They would never stoop to merely saying  “He was happy” – no! Their characters’ facial expressions are an ever-moving display of happiness, anger, and spite. Their eyebrows raise or draw together; foreheads crease and eyes twinkle; shoulders slump and hands tremble; lips turn up and dimples pop; lips curve down and eyes spark—and so on and so on. When done sparingly and combined with other clues, this can work.

But… by sparingly, I mean no more than one facial change per interaction, please. Nothing is more aggravating than reading a story where a person’s facial expressions and body slumping take center stage.

We must be as concerned with what is happening inside these poor emotional basket cases as we are about the melodramatic outward display.

Writing emotions with depth is a balancing act, and simply showing the outward physical indicators of a particular emotion is only half the story. Most times, you can get away without slo-o-o-owly dragging the reader through five or six small facial changes in a scene, simply by giving their internal reactions a little thought. Then the emotion becomes one the reader can feel too.

This is where we write from real life. When someone is happy, what do you see? Bright eyes, laughter, and smiles. When you are happy, how do you 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 infer what to feel (remember we are still in the inferential layer of the Word-Pond). We must make the emotion feel as if it is the reader’s idea.

A short list of simple, commonly used, easy to describe, surface emotions:

  • Admiration
  • Affection
  • Anger
  • Anticipation
  • Awe
  • Confidence
  • Contempt
  • Denial
  • Desire
  • Desperation
  • Determination
  • Disappointment
  • Disbelief
  • Disgust
  • Elation
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear
  • Friendship
  • Grief
  • Happiness
  • Hate
  • Interest
  • Love
  • Lust
  • Pride
  • Revulsion
  • Sadness
  • Shock
  • Surprise

Other emotions are tricky, difficult to show, and even more difficult to properly express internally. They are complicated and deeply personal, but these are the gut-wrenching emotions that make our work speak to the reader.

So, here is an even shorter list of rarely well-described, difficult to articulate, complex emotions:

  • Anguish
  • Anxiety
  • Defeat
  • Defensiveness
  • Depression
  • Indecision
  • Jealousy
  • Ethical Quandary
  • Inadequacy
  • Powerlessness
  • Regret
  • Resistance
  • Temptation
  • Trust
  • Unease
  • Weakness

These are emotions that are best shown by (maybe) an immediate physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations.

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. This book is quite affordable and is full of hints that you can use to give depth to your characters, which makes the story deeper as a whole.

Just don’t go overboard. They will offer nine or ten hints that are physical indications for each of a wide range of surface emotions. But do your readers a favor: only choose one physical indicator per emotion, per scene.

Please.

Double Please. With cherries on top.

Going overboard in showing emotions makes a mockery of your characters. Subtle physical hints, along with some internal dialogue laced into the narrative show a rounded character, one who is not mentally unhinged.

Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. We have deep-rooted, personal reasons for our emotions.  Our characters must have credible reasons too, inspired by a flash of memory or a sensory prompt that a reader can empathize with.

Why does a blind alley or a vacant lot make a character nervous?

  • Formerly a soldier, experienced guerrilla warfare.

Why does a grandmother hoard food?

  • Impoverished childhood, baby sister died of starvation.

Why does the sight of daisies make an old man smile?

  • The memory of the best day of his life, sixty years gone past.

Writing genuine emotions requires practice and thought. I’ve mentioned this before, but motivation is key. WHY does the character react with that emotion? Emotions that are  undermotivated have no base for existence, no foundation. They lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is shallow, a lot of noise about nothing.

Timing and pacing are essential. When the emotion hits and the character is processing it—that is the moment to mention the memory in passing. That way, you avoid the dreaded info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the needed backstory.

Use powerful words that carry emotional impact in your narrative, and you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be a highly charged scene.

To swim in the word-pond at the emotional level is to swim with the sharks of mawkishness, maudlin caricatures of emotions, and over-the-top melodrama.

The books I love are written with bold, strong words and phrasing. The emotional lives of their characters are real and immediate to me. Those are the kind of characters that have depth and are memorable.

A good exercise for writing deep emotions is to create character sketches for characters you currently have no use for. I say this because just as in all the many other skills necessary to the craft of writing a balanced narrative, practice is required.

Practice really does make the imperfections in our writing less noticeable, and you may find a later use for these practice characters.

(edit) P.S. I forgot to mention that this subject is so large it will be continued on Monday. I will include examples of what I consider good and bad emotional scenes, and explain why I feel the way I do about them.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Schmalz galahad.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Schmalz_galahad.jpg&oldid=80715597 (accessed July 10, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Charles Ernest Butler – King Arthur.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Charles_Ernest_Butler_-_King_Arthur.jpg&oldid=289210320 (accessed July 10, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Judith Leyster The Proposition.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Judith_Leyster_The_Proposition.jpg&oldid=354595803 (accessed July 10, 2019).

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