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How to Depict Emotion

Writing emotion takes more skill and characterizing/stylizing than many think. Here’s how to get started with the basics.


There are a lot... and I mean a lot. These are simply the most basic/easiest to identify. We will not be exploring the emotional state of laminated paper that we occasionally (or always) relate to.

1) Happy

2) Sad

3) Mad

4) Scared

5) Grossed-out

6) Annoyed

7) Calm

8) Numb


Finding the right words or synonyms for specific emotions is more important than it seems. In fact, from now on, don’t allow yourself to use the words sad or mad, limit the use of scared, annoyed, and more of the basic emotion vocab.

Wording depends a lot on the character and context. An example is fear. Which type fear does that character feel? Is it just that, just an overall fear? Or is it more? Is it terrified or petrified? How do they act, react and interact with that fear? Do they get over it? Run from it? Or embrace it?

If it’s in dialogue, that’s where it changes. “I’m scared,” can be said. But you shouldn’t stop there. Explain the body language of the character. Do they cling onto someone/thing? Do they hug themselves or others? Are they trembling or still? How does the other character(s) interpret the one who is scared? Do they see unsettlement, or terror?

Body Language

1) People who are happy tend to smile, walk on (metaphorically) lighter feet, with a more confident, open or straight posture. They generally talk louder and more carefree than others. Overall, they have a more open character.

2) People who are sad (situationally, or not) tend to have a straight face, be frowning, or fake a smile. Though they can easily force themselves to have the more happy, open posture, when alone, they have a more slouched posture. When talking, they aren’t as carefree, being more careful about the words they choose, regardless of if they choose right and are more likely to apologize, all with a quieter voice. Or they may be the opposite of that. Some people may be louder, making more risky/dark jokes with the same humor, thinking less about what comes out of their mouth.

3) People who are mad tend to keep a straight face, though may force a smile. They have a more stiff posture, usually with clenched or flexing hands. Their shoulders are usually straight, head held either high or low, eyes sometimes narrowed, lips tight and/or teeth clenched. When talking, it tends to be at abnormal speed, whether slower or faster depends on the person, having less thought behind their words, especially when ranting about the reason behind their anger— no matter how petty.

4) People who are scared tend to look around more, either away from what scares them or looking for a source of that fear. They may also stare directly at what scares them, if it’s identified. Some people will bite their lip, nails, hand/skin, suck their thumb/finger/skin, run a hand(s) through their hair, cover their mouth/other’s mouth, hug themselves, fall/kneel/curl, go into fetal posistion (hugging knees to their chest while on their side), cover their head with hands/arms, or do other things to “protect” their body. They may also grab onto other character(s) or things, holding close someone they trust/love or something they love/need. Their posture is closed off, more protective and alert. When speaking, their voice may tremble, they may stutter/stammer or hesitate, and be overall quieter, or their voice may be all too clear, being as loud/quiet as needed, easy to understand, possibly at a faster pace.

5) People who are disgusted have a more distinct look to their face/mouth that’s hard to explain, for it varies on almost everyone. Their posture is somewhat closed, generally turning/twisting/shying away from what they find gross. They may hold their hands over their mouth, gag, choke or make some sort of sound rather than word.

6) People who are annoyed have a very forced ‘smile and nod’ expression, or a very clear ‘don’t want to deal with this,’ look. They can be tight lipped or release a (usually) loud sigh. Their posture is usually their normal, possibly with crossed arms, head held high(er), or a very forced straight stance. When speaking, their voice may go more monotone, higher/lower, colder or sweeter than usual, depending on if they force themselves to deal with what annoys them or not.

7) People who are calm tends to vary. Depending on their average mood, they may be smiling or have their straight face, regardless of how that makes them look. Their posture and voice also depends on who they are and what their more average emotion is. It may be hard to tell the difference between calm and numb if numb is their common emotion.

8) People who are numb tend to be exhuasted in all aspects, physically, emotionally and mentally, or atleast mentally and emotionally. It can be temporary, often, almost always, or always. They have a very neutral state despite their exhuastion, for they are unable to feel it. Their emotion tends to come more from the people around them, rather than themselves. Their posture, humor and speech is often influenced by those people, but when they’re alone, that numb feeling is much more obvious.

Character & Emotion

Everyone acts/reacts/interacts differently with emotions, as should your written characters.

1) NORMAL: A character’s normal is the emotion they feel more often than the rest. It’s their basic feeling, whether it be calm, happy, angry or other.

2) ABNORMAL: A character’s abnormal is a feeling they rarely feel, but does come up regardless of their situation. It doesn’t have to be triggered by anything and tends to be rather irrational. Fear (phobias) is a common abnormal for characters.

3) SITUATIONAL: A character’s situation greatly messes with their current emotion. It may cause their normal to increase to 100 or decrease to zero, a new emotion or their abnormal emotion come into play.

4) WRITING: Base your character(s)’s emotional value/change/context off the three points above. A normally happy character with an abnormalty of fear will react different with situational anger than a normally anger/agressive character would. If the character with normal anger had abnormal sadness, they would react different to situational happiness than that normally happy character would.

5) EXAGGERATION: Always, always exhaggerate the emotion you’re writing. It’ll push forward that emotion and make it seem more apparent. Don’t drown out the character or scene with emotion, but do it enough that it shows clearly.


Obviously this did not cover every emotion, body language, or example. I limited this as much as I felt was needed for the sake of keeping this chapter somewhat short... I’d rather it not reach record-breaking wordcount. Most of this was kept rather general, so be sure to make the writing style/emotional depiction your own.

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