Knowing When and How to Show Your Characters’ Emotions by Brad Windhauser
Emotions are a tricky thing. Not because they have the ability to overtake our brains, compelling us to do both bad and good things. No, they’re tricky because everyone feels different things in different situations, and if you think someone understands your version of anger, sadness, love, or, say, jealousy, you’re probably wrong. This misinterpretation can wreak havoc in your personal life because it stands to create an opportunity for miscommunication.
In your fiction, however, this misinterpretation can cause confusion (at best) or misunderstanding (at worst), which impacts how your story is understood. Therefore, the trick in writing is not to avoid emotions all together; rather, you need to present them in a way that eliminates confusion. The best way to do this is to show the emotion rather than labeling it.
Show don’t tell is one of the most often passed-on pieces of advice to writers (right up there with ‘write what you know’). But what does it mean? Well, basically, you have to paint with words so your audience can see what you mean. Writing teachers (and seasoned authors) impart this advice as if it’s the simplest dictum to follow, like making sure you always wear a seatbelt while driving. But it can be frustrating for new writers to understand. This advice is especially critical when it comes to working with emotions in writing, and this area also provides a useful example of why showing your emotions is important.
Why is telling so weak, especially when it comes to emotions?
We’ve all written a sentence that sounds something like: Matt was angry. This sentence is weak because it uses a shorthand for guiding the reader. Sure, you know what you mean when you suggest someone is mad, but what does it mean for this character? How does this anger really make him feel and how does he express this to the outside world? Does he vibrate with anger to the point that strangers move out of his way on the sidewalk or does he stay so composed on the outside that he can say, “oh, excuse me” to the person he accidentally cut off as he was walking? This difference allows us to understand your character with more depth. For one, we know what sets him off (whatever happened to him in this moment); second, we understand his reaction—anger; third, we understand how he processes anger—does he let it show or hold it in?; and fourth, we see how his body reacts to anger.
All of this is important, because it dictates how we read his behavior elsewhere in your story. If you merely tell the audience that he’s angry, you lose an opportunity to develop character.
What if you don’t know how your character reacts to an emotion?
This is where you let the writing process work in your favor. In the initial draft, if you need an emotion, tell it. Then, when you get a better handle on your character, return to the telling, erase the told emotion, and replace it with how you think this character reacts—focus on someone from the outside would seeing this person in that moment and also consider what your character would allow to be noticed, what he can’t help being noticed, and how either might be different than what he’s feeling on the inside. This contrast adds an interesting to dimension to any story.
Like you, your characters are human beings, and as such, they think and feel too. Don’t be afraid to allow them to feel, and when you do, you show an important side of them that goes a long way to develop them as characters. And don’t forget: where they show which emotions matters too, for a person who keeps themselves in check in their own kitchen but lets loose in public says something about them. What it says can be up to you, and don’t forget to show this on the page.