Writing

Conveying Character Emotion

In Contact (1997), Dr. Arroway travels space and reaches a very personal destination.

You know your character inside out, but that isn’t coming across to your readers. They aren’t sure what your character is feeling, and they certainly aren’t feeling it themselves. The scenes you carefully crafted to maximize emotional impact fall flat instead.

If that sounds familiar, it’s time to work on conveying character emotion.

What Do You Need to Communicate?

First, let’s review what you’re trying to accomplish. Your job is done once your audience understands the following things.

What Your Character Wants

First, your readers have to know what your character is trying to accomplish in the scene. Without a stake in the scene, there’s no conflict. You might as well replace it with a conversation about the weather; it would be just as exciting.

Your character may not be consciously aware of her goal. If she is engaging in a public debate, she might think her goal is to show onlookers the truth, when really she wants to spare her own pride. The more deep and emotional the goal is, the more likely your character could be in denial about it or simply oblivious to it. But she should still act on her desires, even if she doesn’t understand what she’s doing or why.

Alternatively, the goal could be straightforward. Your character might want to convince the villain to give her a magic artifact, for instance. Or perhaps she wants the artifact, but she also wants to look good in front of the prince. Regardless of whether your character’s desires are obvious, subtle, or numerous, your readers should pick up on them.

How Your Character Feels About Immediate Events

Once your readers understand what your character wants in the scene, you’ll have a head start in communicating how your character feels as events unfold. If they witness your character failing to accomplish his goal, they can anticipate disappointment or frustration.

But don’t leave it there. Details that seem innocuous could have meaning for your character. Perhaps the villain tells your hero, “I haven’t seen you since your graduation.” Without context that seems innocent, but actually the graduation was a very private affair, and your hero had no idea the villain was present. Readers should feel how upset he is at this revelation.

Your audience could expect your angry hero to storm out the door, only to watch him sit for tea instead. If you don’t communicate the seething aggression inside, his behavior might baffle them. They need to have blow-by-blow confirmation of the way your character feels.

Why It All Matters

Knowing what the character wants and how they feel isn’t enough. Readers must understand why. Even if it seems self-evident, it’s important to flesh out why story outcomes matter to your character. For instance, almost anyone would be unhappy about losing their job. But for some people, it only means a small loss of savings and the inconvenience of finding a new one. For others, losing a job could mean moving back in with abusive parents.

Your scene will only impact readers once they understand its consequences. If your readers tell you they do know what your characters are feeling in the moment, but they still don’t care about the outcome, this is probably what’s missing from your narrative.

Now here’s the tricky part: even though your readers have to know what your character wants, how they feel, and why it matters, you can’t just tell them. For them to feel what your character feels, you have to demonstrate it. Simply saying “Michael felt angry” is not as effective as “Michael clenched his fists.”

Telling these details should be a last resort when they’re too complex or confusing to show. For instance, if a character comments about a previous incident the readers weren’t around for, such as the hero’s graduation in an earlier example, you might have to give readers a lot of background in a small space. Briefly telling them about the event could be more practical than showing the same information.

Using Atmosphere to Prime Readers

You can convey a general emotion to readers by carefully crafting the atmosphere. This won’t tell readers how a specific character feels unless it’s tied to a character viewpoint, but it can prepare readers for an emotional scene regardless.

Don’t always use weather to set the mood. If it’s sunny whenever your characters are happy, and rainy whenever they’re sad, your readers might wonder if they have subconscious weather magic. When describing weather, use a light touch.

Instead focus on scenery that isn’t used as often: a muddy boardwalk, melting asphalt, a fairy ring. Then add details that reinforce the mood and invoke the imagination. A lost teddy bear rotting in the woods suggests a story of its own. If you have people in the background, their description and behavior can also add to the atmosphere. An innkeeper could be snoring at the front desk or frantically scrubbing the carpet.

Occasionally you may want to contrast the atmosphere with your character’s mood. Nothing says depression more than feeling miserable at a beach party full of sand castles, laughter, and water fights. While this effect will make your character’s emotions stand out, you’ll also have to work a little harder to show them to your audience.

Showing Emotion From the Outside

When you need to show the emotions of a character without using their viewpoint or an omniscient perspective, you’ll rely on these steps.

Refine Actions

Look through the actions you have in your scenes, and brainstorm how you can give them more flavor. Slamming a door, stroking hair, and fist pumping are all actions that strongly imply emotion. However, some scenes require something subtler. When throwing a piece of paper away, does your character crumple it and toss it into the garbage can, fold it neatly and put it in recycling, or tear it to shreds before sending the pieces out a tenth story window? Each conveys a different personality and a different emotional note.

Add Facial Expression and Body Language

Smaller expressions can convey a lot of emotional depth and nuance. They are also frequently unintentional, making them excellent ways to show feelings your characters may be hiding. Crossed arms, raised eyebrows, clenched fists, narrowed eyes, and sagging shoulders all have strong connotations and can slip out before your characters can stop them.

If you need more ideas in this area, I recommend the Emotional Thesaurus from Writers Helping Writers. It’s five bucks well spent.

Imbue Dialogue

I cannot overemphasize how much the phrasing of your dialogue impacts the emotion that’s conveyed. These statements all communicate the same idea, but the feeling is different:

“I could use some time to myself right now.”

“Can you give me a few minutes?”

“Leave me alone.”

If you need to give a strong line more impact, consider leaving it on its own line instead of adding italics or an exclamation point. Don’t water down emotionally powerful statements by surrounding them with weaker rambling.

Your goal when writing actions, body language, and dialogue is to create the experience of viewing a movie. Unfortunately, you can’t actually show pictures or play sounds; you have to invoke them with your words. When in doubt, watch your favorite TV show for inspiration, or imagine how your favorite actor would portray your character. Just don’t try to describe every visual or vocal detail. You want a few words that capture the experience.

Showing Emotion From the Inside

When writing in a character’s viewpoint, you’ll want to use all the basic techniques for conveying emotion from the outside. But in addition, you have powerful tools that movie makers rarely get their hands on. Nothing is better at getting an audience in tune with your character than showing what they feel from the inside out. Consider these techniques.

Use Internal Sensations

Body language and expressions should have a slightly different flavor when applied to the viewpoint character. Touch becomes of paramount importance. They can’t see themselves blushing, but they might feel their cheeks growing hot. Instead of watching the water drip from their wet clothes, they could feel a rivulet stream down from their sweater to soak their underpants.

Feelings from inside the body have a strong impact. Racing heart, tight chest, vertigo, nausea, aches, and shivers can all add emotion to the right moment. Just make sure it is the right moment, and don’t overdo less important scenes by packing them in.

Close Narrative Distances

There are reasons to keep a distant viewpoint, but zooming in can make character feelings come across much stronger. If you’re accustomed to writing in omniscient, experiment with limited third. If you’re used to limited third, try first person.

But your narrative distance will only matter if you take advantage of what a close viewpoint can do. For example, take this paragraph:

Example

The central cortex hummed as it processed the transfer requests of thousands of escape pods at once. My pod joined the queue, and we waited as the long line ahead of us was slowly pushed from the crumbling station. Then we reached the front, and within moments we were sliding into space.

For all the personality that has, you might as well keep a distant viewpoint. Now look at this:

Example

We weren’t the only ones to tuck in our tails and run. Out the window of our escape closet, thousands of other pods clogged the central cortex. We joined the queue, but its end shrank to a mere grain in the vast tunnel. In the distance the cortex buzzed, struggling to push each group out, inching closer beat by beat. I was sure that in the next moment, the broken hull would bite down on our tiny cage and crush us. Finally our pod surmounted the line, and we slid into the safety of open space.

That’s better because it doesn’t describe events as objectively. The cortex isn’t just processing; it’s struggling. Everyone using a pod is cowardly, and space is now a safe haven. Your viewpoint character has opinions, and your narrative should reflect that. Show how their ratty childhood doll is magical and their little sibling is a brat.

You should also avoid labeling the experiences of the viewpoint character. Instead of “I heard the cortex buzz ahead” use “the cortex buzzed ahead.” Instead of “I watched the other pods line up,” use “the other pods lined up.” These labels push the reader away from the character.

Add Character Thoughts

Once you have a tight narrative distance with subjective narration, thoughts should make their way in. The line between narration and thoughts will blur, giving your readers a seamless experience.

Example

As soon as Lily came in she went straight for my closet of last resort, what I called my escape pod. She groaned and pushed aside my hangers, as though she wouldn’t want a few extra outfits in an emergency. The pod lit up and beeped through its test sequence. Finally it declared all was in order. Lily leaned her head against the door and let out a breath.

Who knew how pod tests became her safety blanket; we’d never escaped in one. Well, there was that time in the Otairus System, but it hardly counted.

Because there are thoughts woven in, the narrative has a lot more flavor than it would otherwise. That flavor will send stronger emotional signals to your reader. We can tell in this example that the viewpoint character has a casual attitude toward her escape pod, thinking of it as extra closet space. Otherwise we wouldn’t know, because the narration is focused on what Lily is doing.

Thoughts are also a great way to show ideas that are otherwise too complex or concealed to express, such as:

  • Anticipation about future possibilities
  • Reminders of past experiences
  • What your character really thinks about their boss
  • How they come to a critical decision

While thoughts don’t need to focus on what’s happening at the moment, they should be triggered by it. The smell of lilacs might remind your character of the neighbor’s house they used to visit. An innocent question could start an internal struggle.

Thoughts are an essential tool in fiction, but it’s possible to go too far with them. Don’t restate what you’ve already demonstrated through actions or body language, or use them to tell when you should be showing. In addition, thoughts are notorious for sabotaging pacing, particularly during dialogue. Don’t weigh down conversations by inserting mental analysis of what everyone really means by what they are saying. Use dialogue and body language to tell readers what characters mean.

Creating Emotional Reactions

Your character must react to the powerful events in your story. If they don’t, they’ll either come across as cold-hearted or your readers will shrug your event off.

You should foster two kinds of reactions in your narrative: ones that happen instantly, and ones that emerge as the character thinks about it later.

Flesh Out Instant Reactions

Consider including these elements in an instant reaction:

  1. The stimulus – what causes the reaction.
  2. Reflexive response – whatever your character does involuntarily or instinctively. This could include jumping, gagging, shrieking, or shivering.
  3. Emotional response – exclamations like “What the hell?” or “Crap.” These can be said out loud or in your character’s head.
  4. Reflective response – the conscious thoughts your character has about the stimulus. It should be just enough for them to make conclusions about what happened and what they should do about it.
  5. Intentional response – last, your character follows up on whatever they decided. They say or do something about the stimulus.

You don’t need all of these elements, but whatever you have should be presented in this order. Your character can’t react to something before it happens or consciously respond before they decide how.

Bad: I twisted away as she grabbed my forearm.

Good: She grabbed my forearm, and I twisted away.

Altogether, your instant reaction might look like this.

Example

The station shook. I fell against the railing and dropped my martini. Holy crap, what was that? Nothing good, that’s what. I had to find Lily. I grabbed my bag and raced back to the capsule, spurred by the howling alarms.

The tighter your wording is, the more urgent the reaction will feel. Don’t let your character philosophize during an emergency.

Break for Reaction Scenes

Once your character has escaped the crumbling station or been thrown in a dungeon, it’s time for a reaction scene. After a tense scene, a short resting period allows your character to reflect on what just happened. These don’t have to be full scenes; sometimes a paragraph will do. But this is your chance to show their worldview in more depth. You can even let them contemplate the meaning of life, provided it feels relevant to the problems they are facing.

Example

The lights dimmed, and Lily finally succumbed to sleep. Through the window above her, shards of the station tumbled past, reflecting the light from a nearby moon.

Had Lily known the station would be destroyed? I couldn’t fathom how she would; it was a random mishap, a freak accident. Then I remembered the relief on her face after she tested my pod. Something made her feel that way. Something she didn’t tell me about.

You should still have conflict during these interludes, but it will be internal conflict. They could struggle to interpret clues or agonize over what they should do next. Once this struggle is resolved, both your character and your readers will be ready for the next step in the action.

When to Include Backstory

Backstory is frequently overused by writers. However, on rare occasions the audience will need to know your character’s backstory in order to understand them. If you tried everything and your readers simply can’t comprehend where your character is coming from, it may be time for a flashback scene or exposition revealing their history.

A great example of backstory done well is in the 1997 movie Contact. It has a moving scene between the main character, Ellie, and her deceased father. Before this scene can impact the audience, they must understand the deep connection Ellie had with her father. Since he’s dead, that’s difficult in present time. So they have a flashback scene near the beginning to establish their relationship.

In cases like these, however, you should still investigate your options. What if Ellie’s father was alive at the start of the movie? Then regular scenes could show how important he is to her. Or with written narrative deep enough in her perspective, she could continually reminisce about him. That could build their connection without a flashback scene.

If you decide to delve into backstory, you must get readers invested in your character before you do. Otherwise they’ll jump ship when you start rowing backward. Once they sympathize with your character and the problems your character is facing, it’s safe to take a detour.


Go through your work and check what expression of character emotion might be missing. Do you have emotional actions and body language? Is the tone of your dialogue strong? Do you have enough internal sensations, thoughts, and reflections? Think critically about how they might add personality, emotion, and nuance to your story.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

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Comments

  1. Karen B. Kaplan

    From reading this article, I feel like I have just completed an entire creative writing course! And now I have lots and lots (and lots-whew!) of things to check for as I go back and edit a collection of compassionate sci-fi stories I am working on now. I am most grateful not only for the info, but how well-written it is. Will share with my writing group.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thank you! This post ended up being a lot longer than I expected, and it covers a lot in a brief space. Maybe sometime I’ll loop back and write an article going into more depth on just a portion of it.

  2. Kathy Steinemann

    Excellent post, Chris. I especially enjoyed the paragraph beginning with “Thoughts are an essential tool in fiction.” Writing that overuses internal monologue distracts. Recently I read something that showed, told, and then re-emphasized with the protagonist’s thoughts. I finished the book, but it was a monumental chore.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks! Repetitive thoughts have definitely ruined books for me. It’s a convenient vehicle for exposition the writer wants to include but the story doesn’t need.

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