EDITING 101: 58 – Showing Character Emotion…

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

  • Emotion Amplifiers

Next week we’ll discuss ‘Character Profiles’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE


This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.





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35 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 58 – Showing Character Emotion…

    • Cool! I ordered one of them once because I thought it was an actual thesaurus that I could use as an editor. It wasn’t, obviously, so I gave it away to a young writer I know. But it was a fabulous book! So now I always recommend them. 😀

      Liked by 2 people

  1. It’s so easy to fall back on a cliché or tell rather than show. Sometimes, I don’t even realize I’m telling rather than showing ~ another reason for a good editor and several beta readers 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, I know. And I’ve heard experienced writers complain that all this “blathering” about “tell, don’t show” is nonsense because—and they are right—there is really nothing wrong with telling. But then I explain that there are so many newer writers who overuse it and need to be told to stop relying on it and learn to write in a different way. When editors and publishers see manuscripts filled with any issue, we start harping on it. But that doesn’t mean it’s forbidden to use it ever! 😀

      Liked by 3 people


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