Describing a Character’s Emotions: Problems and Solutions

Characters are the heart of a story, but what really draws readers in is their emotions. Only…showing them isn’t always easy, is it?

Like us in the real world, characters will struggle. Life is never all cherries and diamonds; in fact, it’s our writerly job to make sure reality fish-slaps our characters with painful life lessons! Big or small, these psychologically difficult moments will cause them to retreat and protect themselves emotionally, believing if they do so, it will prevent them from feeling exposed and hurt in the future.

And while we know “shielding” behavior is psychologically sound (we do it, too) and it means our characters will try to hide it when they feel vulnerable, this causes a real problem at the keyboard end of things. Why? Because no matter how hard a character is trying to hide or hold back their emotions, we writers must still show them. For readers to connect, they have to be part of that emotional experience.

(Reason #63027 why writing is HARD, right?)

A wounding event also causes emotional sensitivities to form, meaning your character may overreact when certain feelings draw near. A man who was mugged may verbally lash out at a stranger who touches his arm to ask for directions. A teenager may be unable to answer an easy question in class after forgetting the words to a song during her school’s talent show.

Not only can our characters be easily be triggered and give into their flight, flight, and freeze instincts, they may also project feelings onto others, deny them, become self-destructive, act out, or a host of other things…all of which we will need to show in a way that fits the character’s personality, comfort zone, and circumstances. It’s a tall order.

Three Tips to Show Emotion Well…Hidden or Not

  1. Know your character. So crucial. It’s the key to everything, so when you have a second, read this post to find out why. (No point reinventing the wheel.)
  2. Understand the character’s emotional range. Their “baseline” comfort zone & preferences are tied to their personality and will guide you to emotional expressiveness that will align with who they are, meaning what they do, say, and experience will ring true to readers.
  3. To avoid telling, think about the many unique ways emotion can be expressed. Writers can sometimes rely too much on expressions or gestures, so think past that steely glare or stomping foot. These tip sheets are gold:

Click here to download these tip sheets (and many more!)

Another challenge when it comes to showing readers what our characters feel is that emotions rarely show up alone. Most situations or events generate a mix of feelings, some of which may conflict with one another. For example, a character may feel…

  • Anxiety over what comes next while feeling relieved at being spared a worse fate
  • Happiness at an outcome yet being worried about what loved ones will say
  • Elation at winning but beneath it, insecurity over whether it was truly deserved
  • Gratitude at surviving along with the crushing guilt that comes with doing so when others were not so lucky

I think we can all think of moments like these. A surge of emotion hits, and we laugh through our tears, collapse in jubilation, or even attack a loved one for delivering news that nearly destroys us. While it takes a greater effort to show multiple and/or conflicting emotions, experiencing more than one thing at once is true-to-life, and so can make these story moments more genuine and gripping.

Three Tips for Showing Multiple or Conflicting Emotions

  1. With multiple emotions, show them in order. For example, if a sibling were to jump out and scare the protagonist as she’s heading down the hall toward her room, she’ll feel fear, then relief, then mock-anger. If you showed this, it might go like this: jumping back with a shriek, sagging against the wall, and then charging her sibling and shoving him to the ground.
  2. If you need to, slow things down a touch. Focus description on what is causing the character to feel a specific emotion (stimulus), and then show what they do because of it (reaction). This helps readers see an event, person, situation, etc. is affecting a character and directing their behavior, action, and choices.
  3. If the emotions are complicated or in conflict, you can also use a carefully placed thought (if it’s a POV character) or dialogue (if not). The important thing is to show the context of what’s happening. This doesn’t mean to fall into the trap of telling, rather to use realistic thoughts, questions, or comments that indicate something is influencing your character’s emotions (and therefore explains their actions).

Showing compelling emotion can be challenging, but thankfully there are many, many terrific ways to do it well. With effort, using a mix of expressions, behaviors, dialogue, thoughts, visceral sensations, vocal cues (and more!) will convey our character’s personal moments authentically, drawing readers in.



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