Showing Character Emotion
Leilani was frightened.
Austin looked about nervously.
Willow’s face was drawn into an angry scowl.
(insert unhappy readers’ dramatic sighs here)
In the classic struggle to “show” rather than “tell,” emotions are an easy place to fall into “telling,” as each of the statements above demonstrate.
How do you show your readers what your characters are feeling? In some respects, you need to become a serious student of human nature. What kinds of body language tell you when your partner is angry, when your child is lying, when your co-worker is uncertain, or when your boss is about to get demanding? A slight tic next to the eye, a hand clenching repeatedly at one’s side, an emotionless face, and finger tapping are all body language cues to emotion. When you learn to recognize them in other, real-life humans, you’re ready to start describing them in your writing.
Another tip is to really understand your characters. Some authors write out detailed character bio sheets, even including information that doesn’t appear in the story. Where did the character grow up? How well (or poorly) did they do in school? How did they treat their friends, if they had friends, or how were they treated by others? What have been their experiences in sexuality? Background information such as this—the little, hidden nooks and crannies in their lives—can be invaluable in deciding how an individual character will respond to a given situation.
One caution—avoid clichés, which I admit I relied on in my “better” examples below. 🙂 These are amended examples of “showing,” not “telling” emotion—certainly not “great,” but definitely improved!
Leilani wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans as the hair on the back of her neck stood up.
Austin looked about, his gaze darting into every darkened corner. Even the furniture appeared menacing.
Willow scowled and shifted her stance.
To support the suggestions given in this article, I’d like to highlight a series of books written by Angela Ackerman (click HERE). These four books are excellent for developing both positive and negative traits in characters (which will aid in deciding on your character’s history) and in showing emotion and other circumstances that can heighten emotion:
The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes
The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression
We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!
Owner, Adirondack Editing