How to Show Your Characters’ Emotions

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How to Show Your Characters’ Emotions

Readers of fiction expect an emotional experience as they connect with characters and become part of the story world. “Show, don’t tell” (SDT) techniques help to provide that deep, engaging experience.

In Make Every Word Count, author Gary Provost says, “Show means create a picture the reader can see.” To show emotions, we need words and phrases that help readers understand and even feel what the characters feel. Such showing can keep readers “in the moment” of a scene while also revealing the characters’ personalities, motivations, and relationships.

How to Show Your Characters’ EmotionsWatch for “Telling”

“Telling” can occur when we name someone’s emotions, often in the form of nouns, adverbs, and adjectives.

An example:

Janelle felt worried as she got ready for her first presentation as head of her division. Hopefully, she could prove she deserved the promotion she’d been delighted to get last week. But with five minutes to go, she was filled with fear that she would do something really embarrassing in front of the group. She was almost too scared to enter the conference room as she nervously opened the door. Walking in, she tried to look confident.

This passage includes eight emotional “telling” words: worried, hopefully, delighted, fear, embarrassing, scared, nervously, and confident. Did you feel Janelle’s emotions? I didn’t. Words like “happy” and “nervously” won’t make readers feel happy or nervous either.

Besides, this type of writing reads like a dull list of the author’s conclusions about the character’s emotional state. By “showing,” we can provide material that helps readers form their own conclusions.

From “Told” to “Shown”

To “show,” think about the physical sensations that accompany joy, fear, envy, relief, and other emotions. How do people communicate their feelings verbally and nonverbally? What do they think about? What do they do? And in the case of non-viewpoint characters, how do they look?

These tips can help:

1. Use vivid verbs. Often, we can cut adjectives or adverbs that label an emotion and use specific, vivid verbs that “show.”


Told: He walked happily through the park.

Shown: Humming, he strolled through the park.


Told: She gave him a disgruntled look.

Shown: She scowled at him.


2. Use dialogue and internal monologue. Your characters will express feelings in spoken and unspoken ways. Besides the words they use, consider the volume, tone, and pacing of their speech and inner thoughts.


Told: Bette was impatient to hear the whole story.

Shown: “Details!” Bette demanded. “I want all the details—now!”


Told: Dan tried not to look jealous as his cheering teammates hoisted Karl onto their shoulders.

Shown: Dan forced a smile as his cheering teammates hoisted Karl onto their shoulders. Yeah, once again golden boy Karl gets all the glory.


Told: Detective Barrow was glad to discover a brass button in the mud.

Shown: “Now here’s a clue!” Detective Barrell announced, pointing at the brass button in the mud.

04-16-24 IFW How to Show Your Characters’ Emotions CANVA Girl meets boy


3. Physical sensations. Emotions cause physical responses, including sweating, tense muscles, rapid heartbeat, stomach spasms, surges of energy, and many more. Adding these sensory details can help readers share the viewpoint character’s emotions.


Told: Dana loved Trey and could hardly wait to join him at the party.

Shown: Dana’s heart fluttered as she joined the party. Trey’s here! Warmth surged through her body as he headed her way.


Told: Egan was so upset he could hardly speak.

Shown: Temples throbbing, Egan forced the words past his tight throat.


4. Body language/Facial expressions. These visuals offer myriad possibilities for revealing emotions. With non-viewpoint characters, we can show what the viewpoint character observes, such as someone’s flushed cheeks, furrowed brow, shrugging shoulders, or dimpled smile.


Told: Emily felt sad and worried after she searched the neighborhood and couldn’t find her beloved dog, Shep.

Shown: Emily slumped against the tree and blinked back tears. “I’ve searched the whole neighborhood and can’t find Shep.”


Told: Jerome was greatly relieved after he and his copilot landed the plane safely.

Shown: Jerome pressed his hands against his temples, then high-fived his copilot after they landed the plane safely.


5. Actions. What will your characters do when they experience various emotions? As images come to mind, also consider the ranges of similar emotions: amused, cheerful, glad, ecstatic…annoyed, angry, furious…startled, amazed, shocked…shy, nervous, tense, panicky.

How to Show Your Characters’ Emotions CANVA Woman presentingPeople with different personality traits may behave differently while experiencing similar emotions, so “showing” can enhance character development. Gary Provost advises writers to ask: “What would he, she, or it do because he, she, or it has this quality?”

For example, after being insulted, one person might feel mildly annoyed and shrug it off, while another feels crushed and relives the insult for days. Still a third berates the person who delivered the insult and vows to get even. Will your impatient motorist honk her horn, curse, and pound her fists when the traffic moves too slowly? Or might she sigh, sit back, and listen to the radio? Will your nervous child crawl under the table, bite her nails, cover her face, giggle, or stammer? Will your frustrated tennis player shake his head, throw up his hands, mutter under his breath, or smash his racket on the court?

Remember Janelle, who was preparing for a big presentation at work? Using vivid verbs, physical sensations, actions, and Janelle’s inner monologue, we can give a moment-to-moment presentation that shows how she felt:

Janelle drew a deep, shaky breath and gripped her briefcase. Just five minutes to go before her first presentation as head of her division. I have to prove myself, she thought, especially after pushing so hard for this job. When the boss promoted her last week, she had almost floated home. Now, her stomach lurched and her knees turned to jelly. What if she forgot something or couldn’t answer their questions? Janelle’s cheeks burned with dire imaginings. At the conference room, she fumbled with the door handle. Smile! she ordered herself. Stand up straight and smile!


Worth the Effort

As you write and revise, watch for places where showing will be more effective than just reporting how characters feel. Help readers to share those feelings, not just identify them, and consider the varying degrees of emotion as well as your characters’ distinctive personalities. Avoid clichés where the happy characters grin from ear to ear and nervous folks have butterflies in their stomachs. Picture the moment, be creative, and reap the benefits of showing your characters’ emotions.


Related Posts on Show, Don’t Tell

Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles, poetry, and books for ages preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. An avid reader and writer since childhood, she loves helping her writing students use their unique experiences and writing styles to create stories and books.  





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