Character Description & Emotion

Showing creates mental pictures, it is interactive and participatory because it forces the reader to deduce the facts for himself. Most importantly, most of the physical description does double-duty by explaining another aspect of the hero’s personality or background.

Since the details are tucked in with the rest of the story, the reader as no reason to skip ahead to the good stuff.

Show character age through description or backstory

He lived with the Dursleys for ten years. Tomorrow, he’d turn eleven.

Mary stood hunched, gripping her cane with a gnarled swollen-jointed hand covered by liver spots.

Show body through meaningful description.

“When we met, I was a skinny twelve-year-old, and although he was only two years older, he already looked like a man.” (HG Ch.1).

Mention skin(tone) only if relevant to the story/theme.

“The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning.” (HP Ch.2).

Simple and short description of eye-colour (save the elaborate ones for love interests etc)

“Harry had a thin face, black hair, and bright green eyes.” (HP Ch.2).

Clothing; The first outfit of a hero should represent where he came from.

Harry potter → broken glasses. Bella → hot climate outfit.

Katniss → hunting boots.

Presenting the emotion: Show, don’t tell

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:

stimulus -> internalization -> response

Oh god. I'm going to die. My heart is pounding in my throat. My hands start to shake.

Emotion can be shown by

  • Actions
    John tore apart the love letter.
  • Dialogue
    ‘I don’t love you back.’ he said.
    “This means trouble is around the corner.” said John.
  • 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. This can be anything from gestures to facial expressions.
    John flinched as the bunny appeared out of nowhere.Implied:
    John combed his fingers through his hair. (Context! Is he grooming for attractiveness or is this self-soothing behaviour due to stress?)
  • Bodily sensations: visceral reactions.
    * Direct
    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.
    John jumped back in surprise.

    * Implied by physical reactions:
    A wave of nausea swept through John. (Context is key! Is he sick from a dodgy bit of cheese or did he just find his dog butchered?)
  • Mental responses: Thinking
    * Direct emotional state through thinking.
    The window into the emotional experience. This shows the reader how the character sees the world.
    This was trouble, John thought.
    * Implied emotional state through thinking
    John always thought of Jane whenever he saw soft fuzzy Teddy bears.
    How do I get rid of her?
  • Feeling
    John loved her once, but no more.