Lately, I’ve been thinking about emotion. Emotions are important for establishing connections with each other and, in writing, how we build connections between a character (or characters) and the reader. Those moments of grief, anger, or joy in a book can resonate powerfully and make or break that connection.

This is a tricky subject for me personally. I’ve struggled throughout my life with identifying and expressing my own emotions. As a kid, connecting to fictional characters through reading was often easier than understanding or connecting to other people or to myself. Likewise, writing became my outlet to explore complicated feelings without having to necessarily talk about them or share them as verbalizing emotion was (and still sometimes is) incredibly stressful and overwhelming for me.

So how do we layer characters with realistic emotions and bring them to life?

Choosing the Right Emotion

How is it there exists so many words for describing what one feels? Perhaps the array of options simply signifies how expansive and varied emotions can be. Sure happiness is an emotion, but happiness can range anywhere from bittersweet to excited. Finding the perfect word to define a specific feeling of happiness (or sadness or anger) can be challenging by itself. We know the feeling. We’ve felt it before, and we want our readers to feel it too, but what’s the right word for it?

I personally keep and in open tabs on my computer so I can quickly look up synonyms of happiness to pinpoint the exact word I need. Then I double-check its definition to know if it’s truly the best representation of the emotion I wish to express. There’s also an Emotion Thesaurus that provides not only definitions and synonyms of emotions but also examples of actions that correspond to that emotion. If you’re struggling to pin it down, there’s also the Emotion and Sensation Wheel, where you can begin in the inner ring with more broad emotions and work your way to the outer rings of more specific emotions.

My personal favorite tools are these worksheets that list and categorize the different types of emotions according to the intensity of the emotion. These are great jumping off points for when you find yourself fumbling for the right word.

Once you identify the emotion your character feels, then the trick is how best to reveal it. Is your character an open book that says the first thing that comes to mind? Or are they more reserved, more tactful maybe? Are they in a situation where they can express themselves freely? Sometimes people hide their emotions so as not to hurt other people, for example. Yet sometimes there are moments even the most stoic of characters are shocked into intense emotions. Does the situation demand an emotional reaction?

Describing Emotion

With Point of View characters, you can utilize their five senses to describe the physical sensation of emotion. A tightening of the chest, a cold chill of fear. Vision blurring, body shaking with rage. The flush of hear in the cheeks that comes with embarrassment.

Emotions have physical effects upon a person, and since most people have experienced these physical effects to some extent or another, they’re universally recognized and sympathized with. If you really want to test your powers of description, go back and remove any mention of the emotion you’re attempting to portray. Then reread the scene. Does it still make sense without actually naming the emotion? Can you extrapolate your character’s feelings from just your description alone?

Choosing your words is important when describing emotion. Powerful emotions need powerful words—active verbs, strong metaphors, and stark similes that drown us in grief or pierce us like a hundred knives. Gentle emotions, likewise, need gentle words—passive verbs, light metaphors, and sweet similes that brush us with content and fill us with the warmth of a sunny spring morning. Take this passage from Crooked Kingdom:

“But wasn’t that what every girl dreamed? That she’d wake and find herself a princess? Or blessed with magical powers and a grand destiny? Maybe there were people who lived those lives. Maybe this girl was one of them. But what about the rest of us? What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary. That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.”

Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo

You can feel the emotion in these lines, the almost sneering pity towards not just the wealthy but towards the naivety that wealth affords. This is coupled with Inej’s determination to “demand” something of the world, to lift herself up in spite of the atrocities poverty has forced upon her. The emotion is enhanced by strong contrasting imagery and active verbs such as “wring” and “demand” and “survived.” Plus there’s this beautiful simile: “We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns.” It’s deeply touching, empowering, almost bittersweet.

Conveying Emotion Through Inner Dialogue

Inner dialogue is a great way to show what your character is thinking and feeling. Most of us don’t always verbalize what exactly is going through our heads, and that’s probably for the best as much of it would be about chores and dinner decisions and boring rambles. Likewise with our characters, we don’t need to show everything that’s going through their heads (unless you’re delving into stream of consciousness), but snippets of inner dialogue can provide some insight into their emotional state that might not be evident otherwise. People sometimes say the opposite of what they’re thinking or downplay how they feel. Inner dialogue skips past that and gives us a glimpse into the deepest parts of a character’s, well, character.


I stare at my quaking hands. I can’t tell whose fear surges through my veins.

I’m really one of them.

I’m the very monster I hunt.

Kaea’s breath turns ragged as she writhes. My magic continues to swell out of control. A strangled scream escapes Kaea’s mouth.

‘Let go!’

‘I don’t know how!’ I shout back, fear wrapping around my throat.

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

In Children of Blood and Bone, the character Inan’s internal conflict about magic is a central part of the story. Through inner dialogue, we watch Inan wrestle with himself over his feelings about magic and whether it is a curse or a gift, whether it needs to be wiped from the earth or allowed to blossom. This insight not only provides tension for the decisions he must make, but it makes him more sympathetic by showing us the rationale and emotion that goes into those decisions and his own misgivings about what is right and what is wrong.

Conveying Emotion Through Nonverbal Communication

Using description and inner dialogue to convey what a character is feeling is great as long as that character is your POV character. It’s pretty useless when it comes to other characters. You can’t just go around describing everyone’s feelings and thoughts unless, of course, you are the all-seeing, all-knowing god of your book and are writing in third person omniscient. So how do you paint emotion into non-POV characters?

The easiest answer is through visible action that your POV character can see—body language, movement, posture, facial expressions, etc. How these characters act will shape how your POV character and your reader understands them. Open and expressive characters are more likely to express themselves with exaggerated, dynamic actions—crying, slamming a door, raising their voice. Whereas stoic characters may only provide the barest glimpses of their emotions in the most subtle of gestures—a flick of the eyes, a tap of a finger, the way they twist their mouth. Displaying emotions through nonverbal communication gives readers an opportunity to draw their own conclusions about the emotions and intentions of your characters, whether POV or non-POV.

Body language and facial expressions during dialogue scenes, for example, may lend credit to what a character is saying (i.e. wide eyes and rounding of the face to indicate an earnest expression) or hint at an underlying intention (i.e. a wry smile) or even undermine what they’re saying (i.e. anxious fidgeting, lack of eye contact to suggest deception or discomfort). This adds depth to your characters so that they feel more alive and less like robots roaming around a stage reading lines of script.

Nonverbal communication is also great for portraying how two characters feel about each other. How they interact can speak volumes about their relationship. Two friends who have known each other a long time will have a more relaxed, intimate body language around each other than if they were two strangers meeting for the first time or if they were long-time rivals rather than friends. Body language can expound on these subtle feelings, whether it be ease or anxiety or dislike that exists between them, and can evolve as their relationships evolve throughout the plot. Trust may turn to distrust, and that relaxed body language of friends may become stiff and aloof.

Benefits of nonverbal communication when writing emotion:

  • Hints at hidden thoughts/feelings of other characters
  • Adds interest to dialogue scenes
  • Adds depth to a character’s personality
  • Characterizes relationships

That being said, be wary of going down the rabbit hole of inane descriptions. You don’t want to bore your readers with every little movement or change of expression. If a dragon is spitting fire on a village just a few yards away and your character is mustering all the courage he possesses to intervene, don’t spend paragraphs describing the sweat on his brow and his shaking hands clenching too tightly to his sword. Build up is important; emotional connection is important; but don’t let it detract from the action at hand.

Check out this Body Language Master List by Maria Korolov that’s useful when you find yourself stuck in a rut of overusing certain gestures.

Sometimes I think the reason I’m so drawn to the genre of dark, epic fantasy is that the emotional experiences of the characters are themselves dark and epic in scope—complicated and often conflicted, arising out of desperate situations—and therefore intriguing and informative to someone who often feels disconnected to the most basic of emotions. Fantasy, literature in general, provides us a means to experience such heightened emotions from the safety and security of our couch or bed or favorite reading chair.

No consequences. No guilt. No judgment.

Only us, our book, and how it makes us feel.

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