Whether you write fiction, nonfiction, screenplays or poetry, your skill with mastering emotional description can make or break your writing. But how do you show — and not tell — emotion in your writing so you can write better books?
That was the question Angela Ackerman was looking to answer when she set out on a journey that led to a series of highly-recommended writers’ guides that are used by novelists and screenwriters and also by psychologists.
Angela is the coauthor, along with Becca Puglisi, of the Writers Helping Writers series of guides. They both started out as fiction writers and met on the website Critique Circle, where they realized that they, and several other people they interacted with on the site, had the same struggle with their characters.
“They were always rolling their eyes of shrugging or putting their hands in their pocket,” Angela said during an interview for The Empowered Author Podcast. She and Becca set about looking into mastering emotional description in their own writing, exploring how they could vividly involve readers in the emotional experience without using the same old cues of emotional expression. Becca started making notes on different emotions and the group decided to start working on this together.
Origins of the Guides to Write Better Books
Angela and Becca started blogging the lists that they came up with and before long, they started receiving requests about emotions to cover. That led to the bestselling Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as a series of sequels covering occupations, character traits, emotional wounds, rural settings, urban settings, positive traits and negative traits. There is also a companion to Emotion Thesaurus called Emotion Amplifiers—two guides that will take you a long way toward mastering emotional description in your writing. Angela and Becca’s Writer’s Guides have been translated into eight languages.
If we look at fear, what are all the different things that a person’s body does when they feel fear? And what do their thought processes look like? What are the visceral sensations? And, how do you tell what someone’s feeling through their voice? If they’re afraid, what is that going to sound like?Angela Ackerman, Writers Helping Writers
Angela and Becca run the websites Writers Helping Writers, a website for anything you want to learn about writing, and One Stop For Writers, a subscription site where you can find tools to help you with, for instance, story structure, world building, timelines, organizing research and tips for dealing with writer’s block.
Writing Well Means Mastering Emotional Description
For most people, with the possible exception of very practical how-to books like business books, reading is an emotional exercise first and an intellectual exercise second. As a writer, you want to have emotional engagement with your readers.
At the basis of mastering emotional description is the need to understand your character really well. We’re all individuals who have had different experiences and have grown up in different ways. We’ve been taught different things about emotion and what is—and isn’t—okay to express. Based on our backgrounds, we all have different emotional sensitivities.
Authentic Characters Connect
Your characters are going to be the most engaging, compelling, and have the best chance of connecting with readers if they feel authentic. They need to be true to life: as close to real people as they possibly can be. When you’re thinking about any aspect of your character’s behaviour, you need to think about what has made them act and react the way they do. In essence, you need to think about and understand the character’s psychology. This will help you write them in a way where their emotional reactions are aligning with who they are, what their emotional sensitivities are, how they feel vulnerable and what their comfort zone for emotional expression is.
When a reader comes across an authentic character they can identify with—someone with similar worries, vulnerabilities and struggles, for instance—this pulls them into the story and brings them closer to what’s happening.
Even in nonfiction, knowing how to write emotionally authentic characters can help you write better books. After all, you’re having a conversation with your reader. Whether you’re writing memoir or a how-to guide, there will be an element of storytelling in your book and if this feels authentic to the reader, they will resonate with what you are saying and more easily take in your message.
How to Create More Emotionally Authentic Characters
Our emotional reactions don’t happen in a vacuum of who we are and what has happened to us in our past. If you want to create emotionally authentic characters, you also need to pay attention to other details. These include:
- Emotional amplifiers: These are states of being that can make us feel certain emotions more strongly at certain times. Stress, pain, feeling hot or cold, hunger and thirst are examples of emotional amplifiers. For example, if we’re in pain, we tend to be in a bad mood, become snappy towards others and make poor decisions.
- Setting: When you describe setting, part of the “Show; don’t tell” approach is to not only describe what the character sees but also what they hear, feel, taste and smell. These senses all tie into the character’s memory and evoke different emotions. However, they also evoke certain memories for the reader. So, they help you build mood and make the reader experience the scene more strongly. The settings you choose can also be full of symbolism: a storm building up in the distance can be a portent of conflict to come, for instance.
- Character traits: Nobody is only good or only bad. We all have positive character traits but we all also have a dark side. Your character’s strengths and flaws affect how they’re going to react to certain situations and can be the underlying factors in the decisions they make: decisions that can steer the storyline and the character arc.
Listen to Angela’s Interview
Listen to the full podcast interview with Angela, here (then subscribe, rate, and review to help other authors find it):