Character Emotions

During my revisions yesterday, I reached a critical scene, one that should’ve popped and sizzled and made my hair stand on end. It didn’t.

Don’t you hate it when that happens?

I wrote notes all over the page, scratched out words in favor of more powerful synonyms, added a few action lines. Nothing really gave me the results I wanted. Switching from one word to another wasn’t what I needed. Adding yet another action line to the character’s activity didn’t do anything to amp the tension. Actually, the scene read well, so I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong.

Then I backed up and read it again more critically, and it dawned on me that I had ignored my own advice in “Authors Emote!” I didn’t dramatize the event quite to the degree it deserved.

In the scene, Talon wakes up in the middle of the night to find a note on his bed. The note provides the key to why the Circle Bar Ranch has been under attack for several weeks. It’s also a gut-puncher that sends Talon reeling.

And here’s where I went wrong: I showed him reeling. Jumped straight to it, from Note to Reel, without taking him through the emotional stages that logically occur in between:

  • Confusion
  • Shock
  • Rage

Oh, my. That opened a whole new door to intensity.

I grabbed my usual go-to when trying to picture how someone deals with certain emotions, The Emotion Thesaurus. You probably already know about this one. It’s a great little cheat when you’re stuck trying to illustrate an emotion. It gives you physical reactions—both observable and experiential—and mental reactions to the listed emotion.

And, like I said, it’s a great little cheat, but it didn’t help for this. I needed clues to help show the gradation of emotion, the slide and escalation from one to the other, and I needed more than just the pumping heart and sweating palms provided in The Emotion Thesaurus.

So, I whipped out my copy of Creating Character Emotions  and went to work. I think this one is out of print (sigh) but still available as a used book. I love it because it’s not just a list of actions and reactions, but an analysis of the feelings themselves. The author provides some terrific insights into portraying emotions artistically and realistically. She provides “Bad Examples” and “Good Examples” and exercises to help you develop your skills (you know I’m a fan of writing exercises!).

If you don’t have The Emotion Thesaurus, you should. But if you don’t have a good manual about writing emotions—and still dare to call yourself an author!—then, you’re falling down on the job.

As I continually harp about on this blog, action is empty without emotion. Emotion intensifies. It draws readers in and allows them to develop an empathy for the character. It gives them a stake in the outcome. If you don’t understand how to write the emotion you’re trying to portray, you may take shortcuts that cheat the reader. Books like Creating Character Emotions can help.

Do you have an “emotion manual”? Tell me about it.

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in editing, write tips, Writing How-To Books, Writing Tips and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Character Emotions

  1. K.M. Weiland says:

    It’s funny how sometimes the scenes you think are the best falter and those you think are going to be bleh turn out great.


  2. The out-of-print book sounds great! I always like guides that aren’t just a list (which can get too easy to add in a novel and move on) but one’s that help us feel what our characters are feeling. Because people express things differently, and once we’re feeling with our characters, we can figure out how they would respond to this emotion…and not just rely on how others would deal with it.

    By the way, you might be interested in our Writers Club, We network with publishing professionals to help authors be able to afford writing services, from book covers to query critiques and manuscript editing, and we have a range of free perks for members.

    Happy Writing!


  3. nmusch says:

    Thanks for the hot tip on the used book. This is the same problem I have at times. I go from incident to physical reaction without exploring those emotions beyond the immediate gut impulse, and I’m always afraid of “telling” instead of “showing”. I love the emotion thesaurus, and I’m putting it to use a lot these days.


    • *Creating Character Emotion* will help you find other ways to show emotion for scenes like this one where it’s imperative to show a dramatic effect. *The Emotion Thesaurus* is good for quick reactions, but when you really want to dramatize something, TET doesn’t quite cut it. Even CCE doesn’t work well unless you practice and work at it.

      My two cents. 😉


  4. Betty Owens says:

    Thanks for being so candid. It helps to know other writers have this problem. It’s a constant struggle for me. I want the scene to create the emotion I’m feeling when I write it, and it fizzles. No one (among my readers) even mentions it. They don’t get it. And that’s my fault, so I have to get into the character and create. It’s a little harder. More work. But worth it, when you nail it. 🙂


  5. Gail Johnson says:

    Good morning, Linda. I have the Emotions Thesaurus and Creating Character Emotions. I recently purchased the Positive Trait Thesaurus and Negative Trait Thesaurus. Truth be told, I enjoy climbing inside my character’s head more than I should. Spend way too much time analyzing and not enough time writing! 😊


  6. Anthea says:

    I am going to order this book. Thank you.


  7. Pingback: Character Research | Inspired Prompt

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