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Writing Tips: How to Portray a Character's Emotions

“I’m sad” and “she felt angry” are oversimplified, boring, and clearly not the best choices for emotional descriptions. Sorry if I offended anyone who has ever written a description like that (I’m sure most of us have at some point. How else would we learn?). But how, then, should emotions be expressed? How can emotion be implied without being said explicitly?

The key is to show emotion rather than to say it. In comparing emotion to real life, people typically don’t think “I’m sad” but it is their thoughts and circumstances that portray that emotion either to themselves or the world. Here is an example showing the difference between the show and tell of emotion:

Tell / bad emotional description – “Samuel walked home from the bus stop after a long day at school. He couldn’t help feeling overwhelmingly sad and hurt at the way Jason treated him.”

Show / good emotional description – “Samuel trudged home from the bus stop, his shoulders sagging as he kicked rocks into the neighbor’s yard. Why would Jason call him a wimp? Samuel only backed down from the fight because he didn’t want to get suspended. Jason would surely think less of him now.

In the first example, we are told that Samuel had a difficult day at school and that he feels sad, but there is no story to his emotions. The second example shows Samuel’s sadness through his trudging and sagging shoulders and then gives an internal dialogue that not only tells a story but gives more clues into Samuel’s feelings. There is also a complexity to the second example that is very realistic to our experience of emotions; the reader may not have used sad to describe Samuel but words such as anger, frustration, betrayal, injustice, and lose instead. A multitude of feelings usually surround the circumstances that make us sad; which only adds to the depth of a piece when a writer can capture or infer those different emotions.

Emotions are also crucial to characterization. Some characters are going to experience some emotions more (or just more overtly) than other characters depending on their role and identity. If Richard is a hotheaded pirate, then he will probably display anger more through his fist fights and sharp tongue. For shy Princesses Susan to display anger the same as Richard would be out of character for her, but she might bite her lip and clench her fists.

I hope this improves your ability to write emotions!

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