Crafting genuine, relatable characters is one of the pillars of compelling storytelling. An essential part of this process is depicting emotions that resonate with your readers. However, it can be challenging to strike a balance between making emotions tangible and not making your characters overly self-aware. In this blog post, we’ll delve into ten ways to describe emotions without making your character feel too self-aware. Let’s dive in!
1. Show, Don’t Tell
“Show, don’t tell” is a classic piece of writing advice. Rather than telling your reader that a character is sad, show them through your character’s actions, dialogue, or body language.
Consider this example:
- Telling: Sarah was sad.
- Showing: Sarah’s shoulders slumped as she watched the rain streak down her window, a mirror to the silent tears on her cheeks.
By using this method, you allow the reader to infer the character’s emotional state, preventing your character from seeming overly self-aware.
2. Use Metaphors and Similes
Metaphors and similes can add depth and richness to your descriptions of emotion. They provide a vivid, creative way to express feelings without resorting to the character’s self-analysis.
Consider this example:
- Instead of: Mark was filled with fear.
- Try: Fear swept over Mark like a winter storm, turning his blood to ice and his knees to jelly.
3. Physical Manifestations
Emotions often have physical manifestations. Describing these can be an effective way to depict a character’s feelings without them needing to directly articulate or recognize them.
- Instead of: Jenny was nervous about the interview.
- Try: Jenny’s stomach twisted into knots as she rehearsed her answers for the tenth time. Her palms were slick with sweat, and her mouth had gone dry.
4. Use Dialogue
Well-crafted dialogue can be a powerful tool for revealing emotion. A character’s choice of words, tone, and rhythm of speech can communicate their feelings without requiring direct self-awareness.
- Instead of: Tom was angry at his boss.
- Try: “You’re not serious!” Tom’s voice echoed through the office, his knuckles white as he gripped the edge of the desk.
5. Integrate the Setting
Incorporating the setting can be a subtle yet effective method for reflecting your character’s emotional state. The environment can mirror the character’s feelings and create a mood without the character having to analyze their own emotions.
- Instead of: Kate felt lonely.
- Try: As Kate walked the deserted city streets, even the buildings seemed to turn their backs on her, their shuttered windows like closed eyes.
6. Rely on the Character’s Actions
A character’s actions can speak volumes about their emotional state. Even small actions can hint at a character’s feelings.
- Instead of: Brian was extremely worried about his mother’s health.
- Try: Brian checked his watch for the third time in five minutes, his brow furrowed. He tapped his phone anxiously, debating whether to call the hospital again.
7. Employ Subtext
Subtext—the unspoken or less obvious meaning or message in a literary composition—is a useful device for portraying emotion indirectly. By using this tool, you can hint at the underlying emotions without having your character acknowledge them.
- Instead of: Laura was jealous of her sister.
- Try: “Wow, another award? How do you find the room for them all?” Laura’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes as she clapped for her sister.
8. Use Internal Monologue
Though too much introspection can make a character seem overly self-aware, using the internal monologue sparingly and effectively can offer a glimpse into the character’s emotional state. Try to avoid direct statements of emotion and instead focus on the character’s thoughts and perceptions.
- Instead of: John was scared of the upcoming battle.
- Try: Images of the last battle flickered in John’s mind – the chaos, the screams, the blood. He could almost feel the steel of his sword, cold and unyielding in his trembling hands.
9. Describe Changes in Character’s Routine
Changes in a character’s routine or habits can indicate an emotional shift. By using this technique, you can subtly hint at the character’s emotional state without them appearing too self-aware.
- Instead of: Mia was heartbroken after the breakup.
- Try: Mia’s coffee sat untouched on the counter, the once comforting morning routine now a bitter reminder of shared memories.
10. Use Symbolism
Symbols can be used to represent emotions, adding depth and a sense of realism to your writing. This approach allows the reader to interpret the character’s emotions, avoiding the need for the character to consciously acknowledge their feelings.
- Instead of: Alex regretted his decision.
- Try: The photo Alex had torn in a fit of anger lay on the floor, a mirror to the shredded hopes in his heart.
11. Emphasize Sensory Details
In real life, our emotions often get tied to our senses. We associate happiness with the smell of fresh flowers or anxiety with the constant ticking of a clock. Use this connection in your writing to subtly portray your character’s emotions.
- Instead of: Rita was depressed.
- Try: The world seemed to drain of color for Rita. Even the most vibrant roses in her garden looked gray and withered, their once sweet fragrance now almost unbearable.
12. Tap Into the Power of Pacing
The rhythm and pace of your narrative can also mirror your character’s emotional state. Fast-paced, short sentences can convey excitement or anxiety, while longer, more drawn-out prose can signify sadness or contemplation.
- Instead of: Bill felt panicked.
- Try: Bill’s thoughts raced. No plan. No time. His heart drummed in his ears – too loud, too fast.
13. Contrast and Conflict
Conflict—both external and internal—can be an excellent source of emotional complexity. Your character might not openly acknowledge their feelings, but the conflict they face can provide insights into their emotional state.
- Instead of: Elaine was torn between her career and her family.
- Try: Elaine lingered over her son’s sleeping form, her briefcase hanging heavy in her other hand.
14. Use Flashbacks or Memories
Flashbacks and memories can provide emotional depth and allow readers to understand a character’s emotions better without making the character overtly self-aware.
- Instead of: Paul missed his childhood home.
- Try: Paul’s fingers traced the familiar grooves of the old wooden toy, each ridge a breadcrumb leading back to the laughter-filled hallways of a home that was no more.
15. Indirect Thoughts and Implications
Sometimes what a character doesn’t think or say can be as revealing as what they do. Leaving things unsaid or unthought can imply a deeper emotional state and hint at self-denial or unconscious feelings.
- Instead of: Alice was in love with her best friend.
- Try: Alice watched as he laughed, her own laughter caught in her throat. She quickly looked away, her gaze falling on the forgotten love novel lying on her coffee table.
16. Rhythm and Repetition
The rhythm of your prose and the repetition of certain words or phrases can evoke emotion. The “music” of the language can subtly express a character’s emotional state.
- Instead of: Joe was grieving.
- Try: Joe moved through the days as if in a trance, each moment a monotonous echo of the last, each sunrise a reminder of a loss too deep to name.
By leveraging these techniques, you can infuse your writing with emotion in a way that feels authentic and engaging rather than overbearing or contrived. Characters’ emotions shouldn’t just be told to the readers but felt by them. Emotion is, after all, a shared human experience, and it’s this commonality that allows readers to resonate with your characters on a deeper level. Keep exploring, keep learning, and most importantly, keep writing!