How To Write Emotions Into Your Fictional Characters

Writing characters that feel real is an essential skill for fiction writers, but it’s also one of the most challenging aspects of the craft. If you’ve ever read an article about how to write emotions into your characters, you’ve probably noticed that many of them amount to little more than writing down a list of adjectives. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s far from an effective technique when you’re trying to translate your own, visceral emotional experience into words. 

Let’s look into these different techniques to write emotions into your fictional characters in a way that feels natural.


Keep it simple

Too often, writers use characters as convenient stand-ins for their ideas about society. When you write with a stand-in for some instance of “how humans should be” in your mind, your characters end up as bland avatars of social justice. Another way to spot a bad character is to see if you can replace the character with an object — if you can, the character probably has no personality, and therefore, no emotions.

To make your characters have emotions, you must know your characters as well as you know yourself. Deep inside, you know why you react the way you do. You know why you love a certain song, or why you love someone, or why you like to repeat routines — you know these things because they’re inside you. No one is an “objective observer” of their own mind. If you want to write about emotions, you have to get inside yourself as deeply as you possibly can, and cultivate that part of yourself that feels. Then you have to practice emulating those feelings, in order to gain skill at writing them. Do this by writing journal entries about your feelings as your protagonist.

Shadowwalk your characters

Shadowwalking is an excellent way to ground emotion in your writing. It’s not just to settle a feeling, but to understand how you feel. So start by writing a scene where your character is standing outside an emotional situation. They are not part of the situation, so they can only see it from the outside. Now, you can write from your character’s point of view, seeing the situation as she sees it. Write a nice paragraph about what your character sees, and how he feels about what he sees. Now, imagine your character has a heart monitor. As they watch the scene unfold, every time they feel a strong emotion, it highlights itself on the screen, somewhere in their body. Write about the location of the emotion on the screen, and how it feels. This does two things, gives you a stronger understanding of how you feel, and how it feels, and it also shows how you can write emotions into your characters. Let me give you an example.

Imagine you are a character. Strong man enters room. He saunters up to you, and in a very matter of fact tone he says “your life’s about to change.” You react, “What do you mean change?” The strong man gives you a look that says “You really need help,” so you continued with a question that seems logical to you, “Why would it change?” Now, we pay a lot of attention to this question, and in the moment it seems like a logical one, but notice everything about the way it came out. Your voice quivered… you know deep down your life isn’t going to change for the better, but something within is fighting the question, and your voice betrayed that turmoil.

Embed humanism

One way to convey emotions in your writing is through the inclusion of humanism. Unlike plot, which readers can often predict, the underlying emotional beats of a story cannot be predetermined, so you’ll need to use hidden levers to subtly move your reader around to your desired response. The most effective way to immerse your reader in your story is through an interconnected blend of intentionality and deceptiveness, or foreshadowing and surprise. When someone foreshadows, for example, you’re letting the reader know to watch out for something in the near future. When someone is surprised, you let the reader know that you were trying to hide that thing from the reader.

For instance, a child who throws a tantrum at the grocery store because she wants a sugary treat is committing to intentional emotions. Her actions are enacting a response precisely because she wants them to. Surprise is when she gets what she wants, so you show the mother smiling indulgently or even indulging her like she didn’t expect to. The effect is a feeling of connectedness for her, and makes her empathetic to the character. It also provides great characterization for both parties, because it shows how much you know about the child from your writing — even if she makes it clear from her language that you don’t know what she wants. Your mood will thank you for it.

Develop flaws with depth and complexity

An underlying theme for writing a fictional character with depth and complexity is to work through the character’s flaws. An emotionally-driven story needs flawed characters whose actions and decisions resonate with readers and force them to think about their own strengths and weaknesses. Flaws, like an unattractive character trait, come from outside of the character but exist within the character’s world as well. If you let the personality of the character overshadow any incompatibility between the character and other characters or certain situations, it will come across as natural and easy to attain. It’s okay to use flaws that aren’t particularly negative. For example, an unlikable character can have flaws like telling the truth too often, or being too friendly.

Taking this into consideration, when developing flaws they are best described as internal or external, static or dynamic, mistake-based, or situational. Write down what flaw develops in each of the above categories, giving the flaws development with emotional depth and complexity. The goal should be to gently show the character to the reader in a real way. If they are showing empathy to others, and are incredibly down-to-earth about their feelings, remember that they might not understand how sensitive they seem, or why the writing may appear to be muddled. If the character is manly, and has had frequent outbursts of anger, or been hurt by other characters, keep in mind that physically speaking, their character has undergone some significant changes since they were bullied in high school. Even if they are very placid when it comes to the actions of others, take a look at what they need emotionally. Fluidity comes at a price when you haven’t had a taste of spontaneity in some time, and since these characters are very concerned with the feelings of others, remember to give that irascibility to the people they love. Regardless of the personality of the character, it is critical that they understand what it means to be sensitive.

Construct your character’s dialogue

Dialogue is one of the ways to actually absorb emotion. What a character says can be a clear clue as to how the character feels and what drives them. Other characters in the scene can reflect emotion through the dialogue as well. Learning to build a dialogue is the key to learning to write feelings successfully. Characters do not always have to say exactly what they feel, but what dialogue they use to speak about what is happening in the world can give a lot of information.

Dialogue can reveal information about a character that is not easy to get if the story is narrated in third person. You can get into the head of a creator as they are creating. You can read between the lines of what the narrator says, and where there is emotion in movement and action, set the stage, and let the words add color to the world around the characters. By writing character emotions through dialogue you can accomplish larger narrative goals, like character development and conflict.

Study physical expressions

As the saying goes “actions speak louder than words.” This holds true in fiction. Characters can say all sorts of emotional things- you can weave entire plots around the innermost feelings of your main characters. But the reader must be able to see how those emotions relate to what the character is doing. When you’re trying to write emotions into your characters, start with the physical expressions.

If you describe something physical —  an interaction, a setting, the set up of a sequence of events put down on paper —  that triggers a complete picture in the reader’s mind. If you describe something without giving a physical expression, your reader has to create their own picture. Not every book requires intense description of the physical sensations that go along with each scene, but do consider how you want to describe it. Most authors, especially those that are new to writing fiction give far too little time to integrating physical sensations into their novels. As a result, many writers find that their characters appear dull, and lifeless.

Let your reader’s imagination paint the visual details

Use language that prompts the reader to visualize the emotion through a set of images. Just as the filmmakers use panning shots in movies to slowly reveal the plot, you can elicit positive or negative emotions in your reader by giving them a lot of information or a little. If you want to give your reader a taste of pride, compare your character to lions. If you have a character that you want to use sadness to give sympathy to, you could reference Jesus’s suffering on the cross. The same method can be used with feelings like anger, or disgust. You can use specific age-old examples if you want to evoke a truer and deeper emotional response.

The easiest way not to elicit emotions in your reader is by over-describing them. Although just listing out emotions and prescribing them doesn’t make your characters believable, in the same respect just being vague doesn’t help with descriptiveness either. Instead, you should be painting a very precise and complex picture with human emotion. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it is necessary. Your character’s feelings must be nuanced. Sometimes they’ll be angry at some people, or happy with others. Write into the feelings your character would have without feeling compelled to apply the stereotypical feelings that everyone would have. Point out the moment when they are giving into their own emotion, or grow attached to another emotion.

Create sympathy for the villain

That should go without saying. After all, what is a good hero without a bad guy? However, it’s just as important for the villain to be heroic in their own mind as it is for the hero to be thought of as a villain. We’re all human, and if you don’t want your antagonist to be hated by the readers, you have to allow them to relive some of the human experiences that would enable us to understand why they are the way they are.

The use of backstory is another tool you can employ to achieve this. It is this device that supplies your readers with a story within a story as to why the characters act and speak the way they do. For example, if you’re writing about an autistic character, what happened to them when they were a boy or a girl that caused this delayed development? Did they have an incident which kicked off sensory processing issues? Perhaps something that happened when they were at school. Create that backstory or determine it from your readers’ reading of the body language of the character.

With a little extra work to ensure characters’ emotions are consistent with the narrative, you can put your reader firmly in your characters’ heads — the place where readers like to be most. While there is no substitute for having a good idea to begin with, effective emotions will help make a good idea great, which is why you should take some time to develop vivid and realistic emotions for your characters. The extra effort will go a long way towards making your stories stand out.

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