Are You Showing Your Character’s Emotions in Three Ways?

I genuinely like to help and encourage writers. It’s one of my most favorite things to do–besides writing and playing tennis. For a long time I didn’t want to start a blog because I thought I’d have to brag about me and how awesome my writing is. Seriously? No way. Bleh!

My only motivator for starting this blog was knowing I could help other writers on their journey to publication. I love sharing resources, tips, and people who can help others. I have a RANDOM WRITING RANTS Facebook page where I share links to contests, ideas, and other writerly stuff, too. (Click here to LIKE my page and you’ll receive my feeds at your FB page.) I feel like it’s “my job” to inform writers of the tools that will help them get published.

Today I’m excited to share a book that was recommended by Christa, a friend from my local library writers group. No, I don’t know the authors of the book, and no, I’m not getting paid to market their book. But I believe this book could improve a writer’s skill BIG TIME.

As I plod through my writing journey toward publication I’m continually challenging my skills and working on my craft, searching for ways to improve. One of the MANY things I’ve learned along the way is to show THE EMOTION of my character without naming that emotion.

It’s NOT easy!

So when I found this book I wanted to stand on my living room sofa and do the samba. First, I bought the KINDLE edition, but after I read through the Table of Contents and clicked through the emotions I bought the paperback. I can’t wait until it arrives! I’m certain that it’s the key to helping me write a quicker deep POV. I will have the pages dog-eared in NO TIME. (I’m so excited.)

Let me demonstrate how this book can help.

The book is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To a Character’s Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. (Click on the book’s title to go to Amazon.) 

Here’s how I’m going to use it, but you might have your own way.

  1. Write my fast draft–the total book from beginning to end without stopping to edit, research, or change.
  2. Let it sit for a few weeks.
  3. When I return to do the first edits I’m going to work on one scene at a time checking for deep pov and emotion.
  4. Identify the emotion for the scene. Define it.
  5. Pull up that emotion in this handy book and read through it.
  6. Show my characters emotion using the tips in the book coupled with my character’s personality. How will she display the physical signs of this emotion? What will her internal sensations be, her mental responses? Has she carried this emotion with her for a long time? Or only a short while?
  7. The authors of this book recommend the following: “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 feeling through verbal and nonverbal communication?”

Here’s something from KELLY’S STORY, one of my wips. Let’s take a look at whether I have three of these. Gulp! Here’s an unedited paragraph:

But first, the emotion: ANXIETY. The protag in this scene is an obstetrics nurse (she takes care of newborns) who is driving home with her family when she comes upon an accident scene and gets out of her car to help. She doesn’t know the victims.

Unedited Prose:

Time slowed. She wanted to breath for him, to make everything better. Tears filled her eyes as she watched him struggle. All she could give him were words. “I’m here. Help is on its way. Hang on. The ambulance is coming.” One second felt like eternity. Breath, keep breathing. She comforted him, reassured him, while fighting tears and praying for God to help him. When his gasping stopped she knew there was nothing more she could do and moved to the back seat again—to the boy.

She bent her body into the car, kneeling next to him. His body lay limp, his head in the middle of the crunched seat, his face nicked with bloodied scratches, his hands curling in at the wrists, balling into tight fists, toward his body, then away from his body—a sign of posturing—a severe brain injury. She bit her lip and placed her fingers on his neck, checking for a pulse, feeling the slow, erratic beats.“Can you hear me?”

Before I edit this I’ll refer to the thesaurus for tips on showing this emotion. Here are a few physical signs taken from the book that show ANXIETY:

Rubbing the back of the neck, wringing one’s hands, twisting a watch or ring, scratching, hands repeatedly rising to touch one’s face, fingering a necklace, rolling one’s shoulders, bouncing a foot, glancing at the clock, phone, or doorway, holding one’s stomach, clutching one’s hands, rocking in place, twisting one’s neck as if sore, biting at the lips or nails, praying, crossing the arms, forming a barrier to others, standing with one arm holding the other at the elbow

Here are examples from the book on what her internal sensations might be:

Restless legs, dizziness, a churning stomach, increased thirst, tingling in one’s limbs, a tightening chest, accelerated breathing, feeling like one’s insides are quivering.

Mental responses:

Thinking about worst-case scenarios, self-blame, seeking reassurance from others, time feeling like it’s slowing down, discomfort in close spaces, irrational worries, replaying the events that caused the feeling.

Cues of acute or long-term anxiety:


Excessive sweating, a ragged appearance, talking to oneself under breath, rocking in one’s seat, heart palpitations, panic attacks, hyperventilating, emergence of fears, phobias, or OCD-like symptoms. MAY ESCALATE TO FEAR, DESPERATION or PARANOIA. 
Cues of suppressed anxiety:


False smile, avoiding conversation, finding somewhere to be alone, doing things to appear normal (ordering food but not eating it), feigning interest in something nearby, closing one’s eyes in an attempt to stay calm, smoothing or stroking one’s own hair as a soothing gesture. 


Edited Version:


Time slowed. She wanted to breath for the young man, to make everything better, to remove the steering wheel embedded in his chest. But what good would that do? Her heart fisted as she helplessly watched him struggle. All she could give him were words. “Help is on its way. The ambulance is coming.” One second felt like eternity. Breath, keep breathing. She rubbed his arm over and over again, repeating, “I’m here. I’m here.” As if that would help. What if this were her son? Her fingers trembled as she held in her tears. He was going to die and there was nothing she could do to save him. She bit her lip and prayed. When his gasping subsided she knew there was nothing more she could do. A sob escaped her lips. She moved to the other boy in the back seat, desperate to help.


She bent herself into the car, kneeling next to his limp body. His swollen head rested in the middle of the crunched seat. Bloodied scratches covered his face. His hands curled in at the wrists, balling into tight fists, toward his body, then away, toward his body and away again—a sign of posturing—of a severe brain injury.The summer heat engulfed her. She couldn’t breathe. She closed her eyes, mumbling to herself to get a grip. Her hands perspired. She wiped them on her shorts before placing her fingers on the young man’s neck, checking for a pulse. The slow, erratic beats sent her own heartbeats into hyperdrive and once again she felt helpless. If someone didn’t help this man soon he’d die, too. “Can you hear me?”  He didn’t move.

Did the last example show more signs of ANXIETY? What worked for you?

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  1. Thank you so much for the recommendation. It looks as though it really does do what it says on the tin.
    Good luck with the book.

  2. WOW! What a fabulous resource!

    I like your approach of getting through the story quickly, then going back and layering in the subtle cues for the emotions. Nothing would be worse than reading that scene with only the added words “the accident made her really nervous.”

    A good plan for NaNoWriMo authors who have just finished their month of writing!

    • Hi Carol!
      Thanks for stopping by. I thrilled that you found this helpful.
      I never thought about NaNoWriMo-ers using this process. Good call.

  3. I love that book! Totally agree. Emotion is so important to the story. It draws in and keeps readers.

    • Hi Lori! You’ve been holding out on me. You have this book and didn’t tell me about it? Ha!
      Do you use it in a similar way?

  4. Michelle, great job on the rewrite! And yes, the Emotion Thesaurus is a wonderful resource. I didn’t know it was available in paperback. Will have to get it, although I do keep it pulled up as I’m writing. I’m so glad you started this blog. You have so many great tips!

    • Hi Pat,
      You have this book, too? No wonder you write so well. I’m excited to use it. Wish I’d had it years ago.
      Thanks for the compliment, too.

  5. Robin says:

    Wow… that book sounds amazing…

  6. Christa Plew says:

    Yeah, that book is great! I keep it with me at all times. Of course, there is a balance with using it (as with everything in life :)) Another good one I have too is Better Than Great by Arthur Plotnik. 🙂

  7. Wow, this sounds like a great resource. I wonder if it’s too late for my fiance to get it for me as a Christmas gift? I struggle a lot with portraying emotions differently. In fact, my rough draft is often full of a lot of “filler” actions. Basically the characters do roughly the same thing no matter what they’re feeling. I have to struggle through portraying the emotions more realistically when I go to edit.

    Thanks for sharing, MICHELLE!

  8. Hi Lauren,
    It’s so fun to see you here!
    Get this book, or at least put it on your WISH LIST. The paperback is sitting right next to me. Last week when I edited my current wip I thought of the emotion I was trying to describe, pulled the book out, and read through the body responses of that emotion. It really helped me use different body poses. Like you, I struggle with this. I feel like my characters are always nodding, turning, looking, or doing the same stale thing. Ha!
    I hope this helps.

  9. Charles says:

    I was dubious about this book when I first read this blog entry. I usually am about thes kinds of things. But it really looks very useful. I will likely get a copy of it too.

    • Hi Charles –
      I think you’ll find this book helpful. I know I did. It draws out the proper reactions to emotions in your characters. I bought the Kindle edition but a week later, after I discovered how useful it was, I bought the book.

      Best of luck,

  10. Wow, thanks! I’ve heard of this book before, it’s very similar to the Eleven Senses, which I really love. Especially when I’m trying to focus on descriptions and all of the senses, rather than just on sight. I’ll have to check it out!

    • Hi Krista –

      I’ll have to check out ELEVEN SENSES. I haven’t heard of that one. Perfect. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.


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