Describing emotion: how does that make you FEEL?

We’ve all been there. Our characters are hurtling along the rollercoaster that we have made of their lives and then something terrible happens. And they’re… what? Devastated? Horrified? Heartbroken? How does the reader know?

We want our audience to know that our character is experiencing some emotional distress but if we aren’t specific, we might as well just say that they are experiencing some emotional distress. How do you get across exactly what they are going through?

The problem with showing emotion in writing is two-fold: we want the reader to understand the emotion the character is experiencing and we want to show them how it affects the character. No, these are not the same thing.

We need to refer to specific emotions that the reader will understand, like happy, sad, scared. However, in order for the reader to really get invested, you want to make that emotion stand out. Are they happy or overjoyed? Sad or devastated? Scared or terrified? And does that make them feel? Sorrow, fear, horror, loneliness, joy, contentment – all emotions, when felt in the extreme, produce physical sensations. Our minds are linked to our bodies, after all.

If Xadiddi and Dffidkla from the planet Xieemm break up, the reader will assume that they are upset. Sad, angry or both. These are emotions that we can relate to. We can recognise them for what they are and understand what experiencing them is like, because we have been there too. But without specific information, the reader will assume that the characters will deal with this situation in the same way the reader would.

How emotion affects your character is something else. Everyone deals with their emotions differently, so your characters will too. You could just say they are heartbroken, but how does that affect them in their day-to-day life? For example, one woman will be heartbroken and drag herself around her apartment, crying instead of eating for three months. The other will be heartbroken, throw herself into her work and lose weight but explain that she’s found this fabulous new diet to deflect any suspicion. These two women obviously have very different personalities and their reactions to heartbreak will reflect that.

What about anger? Who hasn’t been angry, at some point in their life? And I’m not talking about angry because your shopping bags gave way in the middle of the car park. I mean angry that your mother died right when you needed her most leaving you to deal with your jerk-off husband and three children on your own because God knows your sister doesn’t give a damn in her $3000-a-month apartment in the city. That kind of angry. How do you reflect that emotion?

There are two ways, I think, to show any emotion. One, as I did above, involves showing the circumstances that gave rise to it. If I were in the situation above, I would be pretty damn angry. I haven’t been there, but wow, that would suck. The other method is to show how this emotion makes you feel, and this takes us back to the five senses.

Anger, for some people, means their throat closes up so they physically can’t talk. It sounds like they’re crying or having an asthma attack, just clumps of words forced out in gasps. Some people control their anger rigidly and you can see the muscles bunching in their jaw as they clench their teeth to keep from saying something inappropriate. Afterwards their jaw will ache from the effort of self-control. Some people appear to be incredibly calm but you can see a pulse hammering away in the veins at their temples or in their throat.

Heartbreak also produces physical sensations. Loss of appetite, lack of interest in the world, yes, but I mean actual physical feelings. A solid weight in the chest that keeps you from breathing properly, legs so heavy it’s like they’re filled with lead, so that they can barely drag themselves across their apartment to eat in the mornings, which they’re not terribly interested in anyway, but check it out, the sun rose again this morning and you gotta eat, right?

The English language is a fantastic medium to write in. We have a multitude of words for so many emotional states and it is easy to use one – terrified, lonely, overjoyed. What is not so easy, and far more effective, is to put ourselves into our character’s body and explain to the reader exactly how this makes them feel.


About Mhairi Simpson

Writer, dreamer. Magic, dragons, pink mice, cake. Come say hi!
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7 Responses to Describing emotion: how does that make you FEEL?

  1. Great post! I agree totally that emotion manifests as physical sensation / symptoms – this premise is at the heart of traditional Chinese medicine. You could say that negative emotions – even the ones that aren’t extreme – are the cause of most illnesses according to this system.

    Personally, I’ve noticed that even mild emotions do produce differences in the physical body.

    How you deal with hardship / negative experiences is a great way to show character, for sure. After a scandalous dismissal from public office, two politicians buy a gun. One kills himself. One goes on a shooting spree. One hunts down the guy who set him up. Three different characters, right? I guess what you do in response to hardship is also the essence of plot.

    • That’s how I see it, certainly. After all, a novel has to have a plot and your characters need to have moved, somehow, from where they were at the beginning by the end. You put them through the wringer to move the plot on but also to see what they’re made of. Can they handle it? If they can, that’s awesome. How is just the entertainment portion 😀

  2. K.B. Owen says:

    Your explanation makes so much sense. When I have a character go through an extreme emotion, I’m trying to minimize the distance between reader and character, and avoid the narrator getting in the way. That’s when I turn to physical reactions: the back of the neck prickling, the voice getting hoarse, the heart pounding, etc. Emotions often come down to the narrator butting out.

    Thanks for this post!

  3. Pingback: Describing emotion: how does that make you FEEL? (via Anne-Mhairi Simpson) « theforcedmind

  4. Madeleine says:

    Very thought provoking post. :O)

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