This Business of Writing

How to Write Character Emotions

In characters, How-to's, The Craft of Writing on April 27, 2010 at 6:42 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

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The secret to a well received novel and a strong opportunity to succeed as a writer lies within your ability to engage your readers on an emotional level. One way to do this is to bring out the emotions your characters feel. Today I’ll offer some tips on how to write effective character emotions.

It may be of use to realize the words we use to show emotion rarely hold enough power to display that emotion. Take the word, “love,” for example. Can a single word possibly portray the myriad of sensations that flutter across a person when they’re in love? Can four simple letters depict the powerful tug on one’s heart or the overpowering sensation of selflessness when someone is in love? Hardly. This fact encourages us as writers to find a better method to display a character’s emotions.

The first secret to writing character emotions is found in your characters themselves. If you don’t have characters your reader want to know, all the emotion in the world will not engage your reader one bit. First and foremost, ensure you have likeable characters. (Read more about CHARACTERS in this article.)

Next, it’s helpful to know our old friend and writing rule, “show, don’t tell,” holds true when writing about emotions, too. Consider the following examples. In the first I “tell” and in the second I “show.” Despite the simplicity of the examples, it’s obvious the second will have a stronger tendency to engage your reader.

He was scared. (Tell)

He jumped back and yelped. (Show)

An easy way to display emotion in your writing is with dialogue, both external and internal. Consider how a character might speak if he’s in love with or hates another character. Might the dialogue in these two situations differ? You bet it would. (For more on DIALOGUE, read this article.)

Here’s one effective technique to use when writing about a character’s emotions. Visualize how the character looks when he experiences a situation that calls for some sort of emotional response. Then describe his physical reactions. (He jumped back and yelped.) If you do nothing other than this, you’ll do okay.

However, to hone this skill to a more professional level, make an attempt to include their involuntary reactions and their state of mind. Not only does he jump back and yelp, but his heart beats like the proverbial drum and he feels a tingle race up his spine. He also might be so consumed by the event, he can think of nothing else. The more actions and reactions you include, to a point of course, the more your reader will become involved with your character.

When you write a scene where your character is stirred on an emotional level, make an attempt to focus on the seven universal emotions. They are hatred, disgust, fear, happiness, anger, grief and surprise. These will tend to relate to a wider audience.

You may wish to keep in mind your character’s emotional responses must be believable. Constant over-reaction or under-reaction will simply test your reader’s ability to suspend belief and most likely test their faith in your character, too.

Do you still remember your first kiss? That’s because emotionally charged events can prove powerful in life and are something people remember. This holds true with your readers, too. They are more likely to remember the emotionally charged events in your characters lives and it is these situations that sway your reader to talk up your novel. Which in turn, leads to what I wish for you, only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers”

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  7. I struggle with putting emotion into my stories. Thanks for sharing this information. I think it will help a lot because it’s given me concrete, specific things I can do to show my character’s emotions.

  8. Your point about the slightness of direct emotional vocabulary is well made. Look at a thesaurs and see how many synonyms there are for say ‘happy’ and then compare that with how many there are for a word like ‘drunk’ or ‘chastise’.

    Interesting that of the 7 universal emotions, 5 of them are what I’d call ‘negative’ and ‘surprise’ can go either way.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks for your comment, Marc.

      You’ve made an interesting observation I’d missed when you mentioned five of the seven universal emotions are “negative.” Clever of you.

      By the way, this blog has moved to, if you’re interested to see my newer posts.

      Thanks again, Marc.


  9. […] C. Patrick Schulze on writing character emotions. […]

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