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Thread: How can I improve my characters' emotions/reactions?

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  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW satyesu's Avatar
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    Feb 2009

    How can I improve my characters' emotions/reactions?

    E.g. in conversation. Right now mine are very basic, like "smiled," "grimaced," etc. How do I understand and describe a greater range of body language and emotion?

  2. #2
    practical experience, FTW
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    Study the people who do it very well and subtly. I'm reading Olive Kitteridge and learning a lot from it.

  3. #3
    Where have the last ten years gone? Bufty's Avatar
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    May 2005
    A visible facial or body reaction may not always match the speaker's or listener's internal thoughts or feelings - or even the spoken words.

    Reading good dialogue will help.
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  4. #4
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Oct 2017
    Emotions can be written through actions. It's not all in the face. Slamming the door on your way out might say more about your anger than your frown, and it is also showing rather than telling, so even better.

  5. #5
    Friendly Neighborhood Mustelidae The Otter's Avatar
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    Mar 2007
    In the room next to the noisy ice machine, for all eternity.
    I'd say focus less on facial expressions and more on gestures, posture, and movement. Does the character have a nervous tic? What are they doing with their shoulders, with their hands? Maybe they shuffle their feet when they're uncomfortable or pump their fist when they're excited.

    We tend to focus on faces and eyes when it comes to emotions, but people express feelings with their whole body. Even if they're standing rigid and motionless, that conveys something too.
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  6. #6
    Seashell Seller Layla Nahar's Avatar
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    Feb 2007
    Study the writing of people who you think do it effectively. I recommend that you read a book once for fun and if you really enjoyed it, go back and read it again (I have read a good number of books up to 3 times and a few other many more). On your 'learning' reading, pay attention to things like this. How does the write accomplish those things that you like?
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  7. #7
    Fuelled by tea and crumpets. Anna_Hedley's Avatar
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    Oct 2012
    Try and observe the people around you as well. If there's someone you know well, you can generally tell when they're upset even if they aren't frowning. How? Are they quieter than usual? Are their eyes red? Are they having trouble concentrating? Part of it is knowing your characters as well as that.
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  8. #8
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Oct 2011
    Where faults collide
    Quote Originally Posted by satyesu View Post
    E.g. in conversation. Right now mine are very basic, like "smiled," "grimaced," etc. How do I understand and describe a greater range of body language and emotion?
    Are you talking about viewpoint characters or characters that are being observed by a viewpoint character? Or are you writing in an omniscient viewpoint? The approach will differ depending on the answer.

    For viewpoint characters, some examination of the thought process or feelings that accompany the smile, or grimace or whatever, can be helpful. This doesn't mean you need to plumb the depths with every gesture, but if there is something important at stake emotionally, it helps readers connect if they see inside the character.

    For instance, for a character who fears she has just committed a faux pas, instead of: She grimaced. "Sorry.", you could write, God, how did that slip out? Now they'd all think she was a jerk. "Sorry." She tried to smile, as if it were no big deal, but her numb, tingling face wouldn't obey.

    If it's a character observing another, you would be filtering the expression through the emotional state of the viewpoint character. Sometimes one isn't that focused, and all they notice is the grimace on another's face. Other times, one will wonder at the reason for the other character's expression, or assume that they know why the person is doing it. Would the response by the viewpoint character to another's discomfort be annoyance, or empathy, or indifference? Do they share the person's response?

    Sue's face twisted, as if she realized how stupid her words had sounded the second they left her mouth.

    If it's omniscient, you have to decide whether or not the grimace needs more external explanation in that situation or not.

    Sue's face twisted into a parody of a smile. She knew her words were inappropriate the second they left her mouth and worried that the others would think her an idiot. She had no idea that her friends all felt just as out of place as she did.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 10-23-2017 at 12:24 AM.
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  9. #9
    figuring it all out DougR.'s Avatar
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    Oct 2017
    This is something that doesn't come naturally to me either. One of the ways I help improve my scenes is to ask myself, "why is the character grimacing/smiling/frowning/etc?" So, you can go from

    '"Why, thank you," Audra said with a smile.'


    '"Why, thank you," Audra said with a smile. It was the first time anyone had acknowledged her work in months, and Simon's simple validation made her feel visible again.'

    So, the dialog doesn't change, but you can see exactly how she's feeling and why.

  10. #10
    figuring it all out
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    Feb 2018
    As a person with Asperger's syndrome, conversations and body language are not naturally something I understand. I learned most of what I write about through movies and books. Watch an emotional movie, as well as reading well-written books. Watch the characters interact. Can you tell when somebody is lying? What about when they're happy? What do they do? Sure, they smile, but what else? Do they stand a little taller? Relax a bit? What about other emotions. Sadness, for example. People don't just cry when they're sad. They could bite their lip to keep it from trembling. They could refuse to meet somebody's eyes. They could be slouched over. Their voice could crack.

    Also, sometimes dialog by itself can convey emotions. Exclamation points can indicate deep emotion, too. Excitement, joy, anger, it can be there. Subtle is good, too. If you think your readers will understand without description, go for it, but if you need to describe, try expressing it through action. Hope this helps.

  11. #11
    practical experience, FTW satyesu's Avatar
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    Feb 2009
    Thanks. Alla y'all. ^v^

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