I don’t know about you guys, but when I read a book (and especially when someone reads my books), I want it to be all about THE FEELS! But conveying character emotion and prompting a reader’s response is something that can be a slippery little eel to wrangle. So here are my five tricks for conveying emotion in characters:
1. SHOW don’t tell
Hey! I saw that eye roll!
I know, I know: it’s been said before, but nobody explained it quite like Futurama.
EX: I can text my best friend that I’m mad. She’ll likely say: “I’m sorry, feel better soon!” BUT if I start texting her pictures of my face all red and contorted with rage, my eyes shedding tears of fury, then another pic of the paper towel I shredded and then stomped on, I’m not just getting a call from her. I’m getting a knock on my door. And maybe some ice cream. And probably some random e-cards over the next few days filled with memes about pun-making llamas. (I have awesome friends, in case you were wondering.)
I created a response in her because I showed her the depth of my emotion. It’s the same with characters. Show me their gasps for breaths as they struggle to cope. Move their goosebumps from their skin to mine by describing the sensation of blood rushing, ebbing, hairs pulling up on their neck, and that good stuff.
For me, the easiest way to make sure I’m showing instead of telling? Look for filter words: I feel, I see, I hear, I smell. Then revise until I’m not telling you I’m freezing. I’m now frantically searching for a blanket as my teeth chatter and end up putting my crown at risk of falling out from the intensity of the vibration.
2. Address all the senses
Keeping on that anti-filter word train, and hooking directly up with the Show Don’t Tell car, don’t forget that we got five senses to use. Yep, five of ’em. Unless, of course, you’re writing a story where a character doesn’t possess/use/have access to a certain sense, like when I wrote a Deaf heroine. (Which was so fun, and a hell of a learning experience, btw)
Point blank, we don’t just feel emotions in our hearts. And we don’t just show emotions on our faces. In scary movies, the character doesn’t have to tell you they’re scared when they inch forward, hand outstretched toward a door that’s cracked open and shouldn’t be cracked open when no one else is supposed to be in the house and then SLAM! The door swings shut with no explanation except that maybe evil ghosty is implementing a pouty lockout session and now you, and the character, probably need a change of underpants from that sound.
It’s the same thing for novels: show loneliness by drowning in the white noise buzzing of the world that doesn’t care to decipher itself for the character; a bond of friendship or love in the hard grasp of a hand, or a secret brush of a fingertip. The options are endless, but make sure you’re using all the senses available because each one is powerful in its own way.
3. Don’t limit your arsenal to the obvious
Feel free to forget everything I said above, then abandon the scene.
NO! Not like “throw it out” abandon, and okay, maybe abandon was the wrong word. But I know for me, if that stress or epic music-swelling romance just isn’t hitting the high note I need, I will use outside techniques like mini-flashbacks to set the tone and better convey the emotion of the character.
EX: I can tell you that I don’t get along with hamsters. I can describe how their smell makes me twitch and how my eyes water because I think I’m allergic. Or I could walk into the pet store, and the moment my eyes lock with the hamster’s, we’re transported back to a horrible experience where a hamster attacked me in my sleep and bit my nose and chased me with scissors and IT WAS SO SCARY AND AWFUL AND ALL THE NOT GOOD THINGS! Then, suddenly, we’re back in the pet store. I know the truth about hamsters and all their evil ways. And now, so do you. You’re scared for me, for what that hamster is going to do to me. You bite your nails and tell me not to go down into that dark basement of probably rabid hamsters, and then I take a step forward anyway because I AM MEAN AND WILL MAKE YOU WILL FEEL ALL THE THINGS.
(The author wishes to make it known that she does not, in fact, hate hamsters.)
For me, using the non-obvious tools like mini-flashbacks is not just a trick for getting to the good stuff quicker, but for intensifying emotions by placing them in a context and/or giving them a precedent. Cuz face it, we’ve all got baggage. Characters got baggage. (They better). And using that baggage in a mini-flashback is a surefire way to pull emotion out of your characters and tollway it straight to your readers.
4. Sometimes, backwards is best
You know how in romance movies there’s always that one scene where either the girl or the guy is crying their eyes out over their broken heart but having to smile and be all “YEPPERS IM TOTES OKAY” because they’re in a place or situation that requires them to be happy? Yeah... I LOVE DOING THIS.
Creating juxtaposition between the environment and the emotion of the characters is—I feel—one of the most powerful tools at your disposal to convey that emotion without telling the reader anything.
Fun anecdote time: Once upon a time, I wrote a book. (Naw! you say). And it was PERFECT! (nope.) And during the totally-not-needed-because-I-am-infallible-but-my-beta-is-a-sadist revisions, I realized I had a problem. In the original version, a particularly cute scene had taken place at a time of swoony, gushy romantic love in the plot progression. They were truly happy. In the new version, the plot sequence had the characters barely holding onto their relationship by the time I got to “The Scene.” I now had a choice: rewrite the scene completely to express the new levels of angst and drama...or not.
I “not” ed.
I kept their cutesy, bantery dialogue. The characters made (and laughed at) inside jokes, but nothing was funny for the reader anymore. Instead, it hurt a thousand times more that the characters were denying the truth of what they felt because the characters knew, and the readers knew, their lovey-dovey interactions were a lie due to the fracturing of their relationship underneath. Every joke was nothing more than torturous evidence of what they were on the verge of losing because I’m a not very nice person to my characters. Or my readers’ emotions.
So, yeah. Try going backwards. Lie. Fake happiness when they’re heartbroken. Embrace the power of denial. Harness the cruelty of social obligations that don’t give a crap about personal problems. Be mean, and even meaner in how you set up a scene to either deny or heighten character emotions and see if what they’re feeling doesn’t come through loud and clear without them having to wear a sign that says: I FEEL (BLANK)
5. When it’s EFFED, know that “F” stands for: it’s probably too FAST
So you’ve shown all the emotions. We’ve used our arsenal of senses, outside techniques, and scene set-ups to squeeze every last drop of FEELS out of the character and subsequently shove them into the reader. You did everything right, but when you read it, you just don’t FEEL IT. This one, friends, can be a bitch to deal with.
Nine times out of ten, if I’m running into this problem, it’s because I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the pacing in my emotional arc, and not transitioning properly between emotions. Mainly because I don’t always have the word count space or time in my plot line to flesh out Emotion A through Emotion Z, and sometimes it’s really, really tempting to start around Q and jump to Z and hope no one notices. But they will.
When my characters cry, I want you to cry with them. But most people don’t have the habit of bursting into tears with no warning, and even if they do, I’m not likely to cry with them unless I’ve been brought up to speed on all the crap they’ve been going through.
The stronger the buildup, the stronger the reaction.
But take heed: This is not universally true.
When you bombard me with HateAndAngerAndSadnessAndGuilt with no break in between to process these emotions, I’m gonna get numb. The character is mad again? So what, they’re always mad. And I’m less likely to sympathize. So come down off the climactic fight not by jumping off the building and splattering into the pavement, but by walking down those stairs and breathing through all the emotional turmoil you just went through before I pop up from a dark corner and smack you with a 2x4 with absolutely no warning.
But before you all cry foul over my above statement that too many emotions can cause more harm than good, let me clarify: there’s nothing wrong with surprise emotions, or with switching from manic happiness to tears. Look how well Caroline does it below!
It can work. It can be even more intense than sticking to just one emotion at a time. But it’s not easy to pull off, and there better be a precedent/reason of why we’re speeding through emotions like fanning a flipbook, or a hamster will come after you with scissors. Just Sayin'.
So that’s it! My five tricks for conveying emotion in my characters, and (hopefully) transferring that emotion into my readers. Please let me know any other tricks you guys have, and Happy Reading!