If emotion isn’t present, the character isn’t truly present. Without a character present, no reader will be present. A story without emotion is a dry sequence of events that will bore any reader into putting the book down. Emotion propels people, even rational people. Nobody is a perfectly rational decision maker. The world is ruled by passion, not logic. Matters of the heart make things happen. We love and hate and chose to build or destroy based on our passion.
First, the reader must identify with a character.
Identification begins with being presented a character. People can identify with anything resembling a person, even animals and objects as long as they have feelings, hopes and dreams. Once you have a character, you must put him in conflict. Conflict forces characters to show who they truly are, because it forces them to confront their deepest fears and desires and forces them to act. The best way to relate to another person is through an emotional experience.
This character must always feel something
Once the reader identified with the character, he can now live through the character. The reader will feel what the character feels. Equally, a lack of emotion in the character results in a lack of emotion in the reader. So the character must always be feeling something. If the character isn’t sure what he feels, then the primary emotion is confusion.
Emotion must be both recognizable and compelling to read. The reader should understand the character’s reaction, preferably instinctively. For example, when the main character’s mother has died, the reader will expect him to grieve and remember her throughout the book. If his goldfish died, the grief should be short and left behind unless he is meant to be a drama queen. If the emotion isn’t instinctively understood, convey the reason for his reaction through internalization.
It’s important to realize emotions run on a continuum. They aren’t either on or off. They vary in strength and intensity as well as duration. Extreme emotions demand extreme signals but others can be more subtle. Make sure your character follows a smooth emotional arc to convey a realistic progress in feelings. Mapping out the emotional journey within a scene can help to avoid unintentional melodrama.
Everybody responds differently to the same situation. Emotion defines us. What we feel, what we have feelings for, who we love or hate, it defines us.
Presenting the emotion: Show, don’t tell
The third ingredient is presentation. Readers cannot identify with a person they’re merely told about, they must experience the character. This requires show, don’t tell.
Once you have introduced something emotionally rough, don’t forget about it, your character wouldn’t. Keep track of it and follow the ripples it would make throughout the plot lines. Emotions have consequences for those they happen to and those around them. Get in touch with the emotion yourself through acting and drawing from your own experience.
We are born without words and full of emotion. Expressing emotion quickly becomes a primary need, to let your parents know what type of care you need. At the beginning, the emotions are visceral and global.
He pulled the knife out. My heart is pounding in my throat. My hands are shaking.
This is the primal emotional response, but does not individualize the emotion of the character. The mind shapes the emotion.Present the thought before the physical response. Remember:
Oh god. I’m going to die. My heart is pounding in my throat. My hands start to shake.
The way a person’s mind works showed you more of the person than the way his body works. It’s important to individualize the emotions of your characters according to their personality and backstory. In fiction, we present this in slow motion, taking it step by step to capture the experience of an emotion.
Emotion can be shown by
John tore apart the love letter.
‘I don’t love you back.’ he said.
- Physical signals: body language, actions.
The stronger the emotion, the more the body reacts. Every person expresses themselves with their own unique combination of signals.
- Bodily sensations: visceral reactions.
This includes breathing, heart rate, adrenaline and so forth. They are instinctive bodily responses. Readers can connect with them on a primal level. (Use with caution, overuse results in melodrama)
John’s upper lip twitched in disgust.
- Mental responses: Thinking
The window into the emotional experience. This shows the reader how the character sees the world.
How do I get rid of her?
John loved her once, but no more.
Emotion through talk: Dialogue and thought
By default, readers will assume the speaker means what he says unless stated otherwise. This means that if John says he is sad, the reader will assume he is sad unless a clause follows that states he is in fact being deceptive.
'I am sad.' said John.
'I am sad.' said John, suppressing the joy bouncing within him.
Emotions voiced in different ways, imply different personalities. For example, John’s dog died. He could respond in numerous ways, even if the emotion itself is never named:
- ‘Oh no.. NO! Not Max- No..!’
- ‘FUCK! That bastard! I’m going to kill him!’
- ‘What? I don’t believe it. Where is he?’
- ‘Oh no… please tell me he didn’t suffer.’
- ‘But he was just here a minute ago. I let him out into the garde-… oh no… I hadn’t leashed him… it’s all my fault.’
Emotional speech usually contains profanity, interjections, slang and dialect, since the verbal filter is weakened when emotions run wild. People generally do not name their emotion until the heat of the moment has worn off and they have had time to reflect. Do not spend too much time showing the same emotion. The reader becomes insensitive after a while. A very emotional character may spend a page in the woes of sorrow, a character may repeat himself three or four times when in shock, an introverted character may spend a paragraph or so processing the emotion but be sure to limit it.
A dash at the end indicates having been cut off.
'He wouldn't d-'
'He wouldn't, he'd- ... he just wouldn't.'
Ellipses indicate trailing off.
'You'd think so...'
Italics show emphasis.
'He gets great marks, thank you very much.'
Quotations indicate sarcasm or dubious words.
'John was "wonderful".'
Adverbs and tone of voice.
Tone of voice is generally indicated by use of adverbs.
"It wasn't me!" She cried.
"Will you listen?" He said angrily.
Though be sure to use specific verbs whenever possible rather than adverbs. The emotion is much stronger if she “shouted” rather than “said loudly”.
The presentation couldn’t be more clear, yet it doesn’t really drive home does it?
The word anger wasn’t used, but you knew exactly which emotion was felt here, didn’t you? The thought – process is a valuable tool in show, don’t tell and let’s the reader experience the emotion along with the character.
This is where the written word wins from film. A voice-over just doesn’t have the same effect. In writing, the mind can be portrayed as it happens, every thought in every moment within the character. So story that doesn’t go into the mind, is seriously lacking. Every person thinks, so your characters must too.
She smiled at me. “Hi, how are you?”
I smiled back. “Good thanks, you?”
They could be thinking anything! Watch what happens when a peek into the mind is added.
She smiled at me. “Hi, how are you?”
I want to kiss her. I smile back, hoping I won’t blush. “Good thanks, you?”
Showing the thought process allows the reader a peek into the secret lives of people, the thoughts and feelings they don’t show to anyone. It also shows the internal struggle.
Get a hold of yourself. Stop being such a coward.
The same techniques apply as for dialogue. Interjections, dialect, profanity, emphasis, stopping mid-word, it can all happen. There are lots of different kinds of thoughts a person can have:
- disassociate: if I die now, who will look after my dog?
- deny: it’s not as bad as it looks. It’ll fix itself in time.
- confrontation: it’s fucked, totally fucked and it’s your own fault.
- negotiate: i’ll go to church every sunday if you get me out of this
- displace: there’s be more jobs if there weren’t so many refugees
- optimism: it’s hard now but i’ll be stronger for it
- question: what’s happening? why’s he doing that?
- planning: if I can just reach the shovel…
- fantasy: one day i’ll be your boss and i’ll…
Suggesting emotion through metaphors, symbols and sensory details
A metaphor is speech containing an implied comparison, in which a word or phrase primarily used of one thing is applied to another. They possess a unique power to evoke things beyond the words. Metaphors evoke associations readers have with the phrases and words used. For example, roses evoke thoughts of prickly thorns and romance, whereas deserts evoke thoughts of loneliness and emptiness. Use of metaphors come with a warning label, not everyone has the same associations. You may have thoughts of romantic gifts when flowers are mentions, but an allergy to flowers will provoke an entirely different emotion. Words may also change their meaning over time and cultures. A western wedding is quite different from an eastern wedding. A modern marriage is quite different from a 1950’s one. Weird and unusual metaphors may be fresh and original or so bizarre that it kicks the reader out of the story. Be wary when using weather has a metaphor for emotions, in reality the weather does not adapt to fit any given person’s state of mind.
Sensory details bring fresh insight into the situation, as most writing is shown through someone’s eyes and speech. Smell, taste and feel are often neglected, as these are not dominant senses, however they come hand in hand with emotions. For example, the smell of a corpse will make you recoil even as you imagine it, whereas the smell of freshly baked apple pie can make you hungry. Stick to sensory details that are most likely to enforce the emotion you want your reader to experience and weave it into the story.
The most used emotion in fiction
Frustration, without it – there is no plot. Frustration means someone isn’t getting what they want, which means there is a goal and an obstacle. There are various ways to react to something standing in your way. You can drown yourself in anger or sadness, or find yourself more determined than ever to reach your goal. You can blame yourself or someone else for the problem. You can attempt to avoid the issue by drinking or giving up. How your character responds to frustration lies at the very foundation of your story.
Do avoid the clichés though! Staying original is easier than you might think. Just describe the emotion in a way that is specific to your character (and thus cannot be applied believable on just any of the other characters).
Examples of such clichés are:
- quivering knees
- a single tear down the cheek
- the grin from ear to ear
The key aspects to convey emotions
- Identify the root emotion, layer with other emotions as called for in a lesser degree and map out the full experience.
- Use the setting and have your characters interact with the world around them.
- Less is more: spending too many words on emotion will slow the pace and dilute the emotional experience for the reader.
- Twist the cliché: be fresh.
If you need help, look up the emotion in the Emotion thesaurus to give you ideas on physical signals, internal sensation and mental responses as well as cues.
Cleaver, J. (2002) Immediate Fiction.
Kress, N. Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint.