Ah, character emotion. It’s one of the hardest things to write right. It’s also one of the most important. You can have a deep, complex character, a compelling, well-crafted plot, and the setting descriptions nailed down to the tiniest details. But if you can’t write character emotion in a compelling way, your book will be only half as rich as it could be.
As you may already know, if you’ve been hanging around the writing world for a while, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi of Writers Helping Writers have just released a new book! So, to celebrate The Emotion Thesaurus: Second Edition, I’ve compiled several tips I’ve discovered while on my own writing journey.
1. Don’t Resort to the Face
Many authors, myself included, tend to go straight to the face for signs of emotion. In my first drafts, all my characters smile, frown, and glare; their eyes shoot daggers and glisten with tears and shift away slyly. It’s true that the face does show emotion, but other parts of the body are equally good–or even better at it. When was in my Sherlock phase (if we’re being honest, I never grew out of it), I learned to watch people’s feet to deduce their emotions. Crazy, right?
That’s not to say you can’t use facial expressions. When done right, these can be powerful descriptions. Take the following passage for example. I’ve read this book a total of one time, and that was two or three years ago, and yet I still remember how much this description stuck out to me:
[A] forehead with a singular capacity . . . of lifting and knitting itself into an expression that was not quite one of perplexity, or wonder, or alarm, or merely of bight fixed attention, though it included all four the expressions[.]Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Just to be clear, I wouldn’t suggest actually writing descriptions like that (unless you’re actually Charles Dickens); the point is, it is possible to write good emotion through the face.
2. What is your character thinking?
Any good psychologist will tell you that there is a thought behind every emotion. It’s not always a conscious thought–in fact, unconscious thoughts and underlying beliefs are often more powerful. The Emotion Thesaurus (including the Second Edition) has a section all about thoughts and mental responses.
This isn’t something you do every single time your character feels an emotion. It also doesn’t have to be internal monologue (though it certainly can be). In other words, you don’t want a character who’s all emotion and no conscious thought, nor do you want a character who’s all thoughts and no feelings. That would just seem… odd.
3. Every Character is Different
Just because Ron Weasley has the emotional range of a teaspoon… yeah you get the picture. Every character will probably have a different emotional range. On top of that, some people tend to be very private about their emotions, while others spill them openly. And guys and girls experience emotions differently. (I hadn’t quite nailed this down when I wrote my first novel. You do not wanna read it.)
And, of course, different characters will express the same emotion differently. Just as a quick example, I have one character who tends to snap at people when he gets angry, but when presented with the same situation, another of my characters will have a full-blown temper tantrum.
The best advice I can give you is to get to know your characters. Showing emotion is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath every emotion and reaction is a history, a backstory, a wound, a set of beliefs. Of course, there’s no way I can get into all of that today! (Hint: Angela and Becca have a bunch of other thesauruses that talk about all that!)
One last thing here: there’s an epic giveaway going on right now!
To celebrate the new book and its dedicated readers, Angela and Becca have an unbelievable giveaway on right now: one person will win a free writing retreat, conference, workshop, or professional membership to a writing organization, winner’s choice (up to $500 US, with some other conditions which are listed on the WHW site).
What conference would you attend if the fee was already paid for…or would you choose a retreat? Something else? Decisions, decisions! This giveaway ends on February 26th, so hurry over and enter!