How to Reveal a Character’s Emotions

James Mascia, Author of The Leviathan Chronicles: The Last Stand at Aeprion shares a guest post with Lilac Reviews.  After reading this great craft post, see the book review and tour information below.

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He felt angry. She felt sad. They were excited.

Yes, you are telling the emotions of the characters in the story, but this really doesn’t show us anything important, and frankly, unless you are writing for a preschool audience, leads to some boring writing.

Look at your favorite novel, and read a scene in it that is emotionally charged (it can be a heated argument, or a romantic love scene. It doesn’t
matter.) Look at how the author shows the sentiments of characters within that scene. They don’t simply say how the character is feeling, or if they do, they go beyond that to show the reader exactly how angry, sad, happy, etc. they are. In your writing, you need to do that as well. This is one of those cases, where you have to show the characters emotions instead of telling about them.

In order to really show the emotions in a way that doesn’t simply state, “He felt angry.” You can do a number of things.

Delve Deep into Your Character’s Mind

Like real human beings, your characters have inner thoughts that they share with no one. However, as a writer, you can let your readers in on what those inner thoughts are. This will require you to get into your character’s head.

Try and feel the emotion from your character’s point of view. For my example, I’ll continue on the emotion of anger. As you write your scene:

  1. Think about what is making your character angry and why.
  2. Think about what your character realizes about his or her own anger.
  3. Think about what the character wants to happen to resolve this anger.
  4. Think about what your character would like to do to the person/or thing that is making him or her angry.
  5. Think about what other conflicting emotions this character might have.

Then construct a paragraph or two in which you describe all these things. And as an extra challenge, try to do it without ever once saying what the emotion is. Look at the following, short example.

Why did she have to be so cruel? It wasn’t the boy’s fault that he couldn’t do it, yet she expected him to be the next Rembrandt or Picasso. It wasn’t the face that she expected so much of the boy that had him out of sorts, it was more that she was punishing him for getting it wrong. He wished she would just leave him alone. He wanted to scream at her, but he couldn’t do it in front of the boy, what would he think if he saw his father coming and shouting in his mother’s face. He pushed it back down into the pit of his stomach, where he knew it would fester until eventually he’d explode.

You get the feeling that he is angry, but we do it completely in his mind with his inner thoughts. We also have a much deeper story that gets into what the character is actually feeling, rather than only saying, “He was angry.”

Make the Character Do Something

Another way you can show your character’s emotions is by having them perform some action when they are feeling the emotion. This can be something that they do in only this specific situation, or it can be a quirk that they do every time they feel this way.

Feel what your character is feeling. Think about your own reactions to this. Do your palms get sweaty when you’re nervous? Do your cheeks get hot when you’re embarrassed or angry? Do you shake uncontrollably with laughter when you’re excited? Then, as you write your scene:

  1. Think about if you’d want your character to react the same way as you.
  2. Think about what physical action they could do when they feel this emotion.
  3. Think about what would set him or her apart from other characters in the same situation.
  4. Think about how your character might overreact to the situation.

Then construct a paragraph or two in which you describe all these things. Again, as an extra challenge, try to do it without ever once saying what the emotion is. Look at the following, short example.

His cheeks heated up and he knew they had already turned bright red. His fists clenched tightly, but he made sure to keep his arms firmly at his sides so he wouldn’t throw something, or punch a hole through a wall like he did last time. Still, his arms shook with the need to act. They burned with the desire to cause some destruction. Only when he let loose would the feeling go away.

Again, we understand perfectly that this character is angry, but we have gone well beyond actually stating this fact. We get a description that gives us a deeper meaning behind this anger.

Use Dialogue

The last way I have for you today is using dialogue. Now, I will say that dialogue shouldn’t be used by itself (unless you are writing a play, and even then, you’d have some stage directions for the actor’s as well). But you can convey the emotion through dialogue without the character actually saying, “This is how I feel.”Again, I will say that you need to put yourself into a similar situation, and you almost have to take both sides of the conversation (or only one side if the character talks to himself/herself.) What would you say? What would they say? Would their personality make them open to this conversation, or would they try to avoid it? As you write your scene:

  1. Think about what needs to be said in the conversation.
  2. Think about how the character’s words (or inflections) might change with different emotions.
  3. Think about the character’s reaction to the previous line of dialogue.
  4. Think about what your character really wants.

Then construct a conversation where all these things are considered. Again, as an extra challenge, try to do it without ever once saying what the emotion is. Look at the following, short example. For the purpose of this example, I will be focusing on the dialogue, in my story I would intersperse this with what I had already stated in the previous sections.

“You smell like you’ve taken a bath in it, Paul. How many did you have? How many?”

“Not enough apparently.”

“When? When are you going to wake up and realize we’re not kids anymore? You have—”

“Don’t give me this crap again, Jane.”

“I have to. You never learn. You never listen. One night I’m going to get a call because you’ve gotten yourself killed. Then where will I be. Where will we be?”

“You don’t understand.”

“Then tell me. Tell me why you’d rather go out to a bar every night than stay here with me? Are you even attracted to me anymore?”

“Of course.”

“No. You’re only attracted to the bottle you’re drinking from. And I’m done with it, Paul. I’m done with you.”

As I said, I concentrated on only the dialogue, and hopefully that was enough to paint a picture in your head. The words should be enough to tell you what the emotions of the characters are. But if you were to have Paul throw his hands up in the air when he says, “Not enough apparently,” or have Jane pause and reflect a moment after he says, “You don’t understand,” and you have yourself quite an emotional scene.

Also, notice the two distinct voices. Notice that Jane speaks a lot, and that she repeats her words twice many times. This can be written in as a character quirk for her, and adds depth not only to the scene, but her character. While Paul is only speaking in short phrases. You could also add a reason for that. Maybe you can have Jane notice that he’s hardly speaking, and that he only does that when he’s embarrassed by what he’s done. It’s completely up to you, but the possibilities are endless.

There are any number of ways that you can show emotions in your characters. These three things I have put here are but a sampling of what you can do. The important thing to remember, is that you need to go way beyond just saying how the character is feeling.

Review of… The Leviathan Chronicles: The Last Stand at Aeprion

Author James Mascia / Reviewed by Felita Daniels / 64 Pages

For Ages 12 to 18, Grade 6 -12

I think this is a fun read for the age group intended. It is solidly in the sci-fi adventure camp. There is also a strong sense of love for Kate by Joel without it being too mushy for kids. He is certainly in peril, but keeps working towards a better outcome.

Kraxem is the villain in this story and his main trait is his dogged pursuit of Kate and Joel. The ship is called the Wanderer. She contributes to the dialogue and the quest for Aeprion. I really like that there was some artwork in the story in addition to the cover artwork. I think youngsters would appreciate this too. The number of characters to keep track of is just right for this length of story. Excellent young adventure!

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About the Author

Author ArtHe fights evil across the known universe and crushes them between his fingers (at least, he does this with his words).

James Mascia is an accomplished writer with a bestselling series, High School Heroes, as well as a bestselling graphic novel, The Poe Murders. He has always been a fan of sci-fi, and is glad to be delving back into the galaxy once again.

James teaches in Maryland, where he also writes. He has a lovely wife and a tiny terror (a two-year-old) driving him mad, but making him laugh.

Island of Dren Website Deviant Art Website

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5 Comments

Filed under Writing Craft

5 Responses to How to Reveal a Character’s Emotions

  1. Mai T.

    When did you decide to become a writer?

    • I kind of have always been a writer. Even before I was in school I wrote “books”. It wasn’t until college though that I finally decided to pursue it as a career.

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