Writers Abroad Blog
Wear your heart on your sleeve
Posted by Vanessa Couchman

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression by [Ackerman, Angela, Puglisi,Becca]

Portraying emotion is one of the most difficult things in writing. I certainly have to work hard at it, although I have improved since I first joined Writers Abroad many moons ago. My local writing group has spent a number of sessions trying to pin down what constitutes a good portrayal of emotion.

We have each brought examples of writing from published authors. I chose the opening passages of Hannah Kent’s The Good People , which illustrate grief. We have done a number of writing exercises (you might like to try these). One involved writing about a farmer who is grieving for his dead son, but we couldn’t mention the son or his death or any words that signal emotion. Instead, we had to describe the farmer’s barn and convey in the details his sense of loss. In another exercise, we had to write about someone standing on a beach looking at the sea, but we could choose the emotion. I found both exercises difficult.

After doing a lot of work on this, we have drawn several conclusions.

  • Make readers feel with the characters and evoke a reaction. They have to feel the joy or the fear or the anger. They have to care about what happens to your characters, even if they are not sympathetic personalities.
  • This means showing what characters are feeling and not reporting it to your readers. So “thought” words like thinks, knows, understands, realises, believes, wants, remembers, imagines, desires, etc. are out. Loves and hates are also no-nos. This is bad news for me.
  • Show characters’ emotions through their interactions with other people and their environment, and their actions and gestures. This means avoiding long soliloquies, which hold up the action and drag you back into using those “thought” words. Again, bad news for me.
  • Vary the intensity of the emotions. Even in a thriller, the main character can’t be scared or apprehensive all the time. It’s as exhausting for the reader as it is for the character.

There’s a lot more to it, of course. Whole books have been written about showing and not telling. Also, if you’ve been writing for any length of time, you know all this, so I’m not telling you anything new. However, if you’re like me, you find it maddeningly difficult to do it well.

Help is at hand, though. Someone recommended to me The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This book lists 75 emotions and suggests ways of expressing them, including body language. Want to convey anger, envy or joy? Turn to the relevant page and you have a range of helpful suggestions.

The book is a helpful starting point, but it’s always a good idea to think up your own metaphors and turns of phrase to describe emotions. If you rely too much on a primer, your creative muscle goes flabby.

Now I’m off to expunge all those “thought” words from my WiP…



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