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Steve Alvest


How Add Emotion to Your Story Characters


This list was adapted from an article on my website, Shock Notes.

The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, is the ultimate writer’s reference for adding more emotion to your characters. The book starts with some guidance on how to effectively write realistic emotional responses for your characters. The rest of the book works much like a thesaurus. There are 75 emotion entries full of ideas for how your characters can express their emotions in your story. Along with the 75 emotion entries, there are also 75 “writer’s tips” that deliver small, but powerful nuggets of information on how you can employ emotions to strengthen your stories.

Here are my favorite takeaways from the book.

    1. Don’t get lazy

    “Showing takes more work than telling, as word count alone will indicate, but it pays off by drawing the reader closer to the character and helping to create empathy. Once in a great while, it’s acceptable to tell the reader what the character is feeling: when you have to pass on information quickly, or when you need a crisp sentence to convey a shift in mood or attention. But the other ninety-nine times out of a hundred, put in the extra work and you will reap the benefits of showing.”

    2. Avoid melodrama

    “To avoid melodrama, recognize that emotions run along a continuum, from mild to extreme. For each situation, know where your character is along that continuum and choose appropriate descriptors… Make sure that your character’s feelings progress realistically. Map out the emotional journey within the scene to avoid unintended melodrama.”

    3. Look for symbolism

    “WRITER’S TIP: To add another layer to an emotional experience, look for symbolism within the character’s current setting. What unique object within the location can the character make note of that perfectly embodies the emotion they are feeling inside?”

    4. Think in terms of three

    “WRITER’S TIP: For each scene, identify the emotion you need to show and think in terms of three…what three ways have you reinforced the character’s feelings through verbal and nonverbal communication?”

    5. Quash your crutches

    “WRITER’S TIP: Make a list of your body language crutches (frowning, smiling, shrugging, head shaking, etc.). Use your browser’s search function to highlight these so you can pinpoint where the emotional description needs some freshening up.”

    6. Less is more

    “WRITER’S TIP: When crafting the physical movement of a fight scene, remember that less is more. Too many details create a play-by-play feel which can come across as mechanical.”

    7. Offer the reader something unexpected

    “WRITER’S TIP: Make it a goal to offer the reader something unexpected in every scene, be it an emotional reaction, a roadblock to trip the character up, or a snippet of dialogue that sheds new light on the events unfolding.”

    8. Never let the reader notice the writing

    “WRITER’S TIP: Never let the reader notice the writing. Overusing metaphors, similes, descriptive terms, and repeated body language can pull the reader out of the story.”

    9. Understand your character’s emotional range

    “WRITER’S TIP: Understand your character’s emotional range. For one character, intense situations may make them hyperventilate. For another, it might cause them to shift slightly while seated. Knowing how expressive a character is will help you find the perfect body cue to convey an emotional meaning.”

    10. Properly impress the reader

    “WRITER’S TIP: Don’t make it easy for your heroes. Pile on the difficulties. Overwhelm them. Make it seemingly impossible for them to succeed so that when they do overcome, the reader will be properly impressed.”

    11. Search for feelings

    “WRITER’S TIP: When describing a character’s feelings, the word “felt” is often a cue for telling emotion, not showing. Run a search for this word and challenge yourself on its use.”

    12. Focus on the trigger

    “WRITER’S TIP: To create a stronger reader reaction to emotion, remember to focus on showing what triggers the feeling, rather than only showing the character’s response to it.”

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