Writing character emotions requires a delicate balance of showing and telling, action and exposition. Excessive emotional description will make a character seem too wrapped up in their own head. Readers will tune out and disconnect. Too little will leave them wondering why they should care. When you get it just right, readers will feel like they’re experiencing the story right along with your main character.
Finding that balance will require practice, but here are a few tips to get you started.
Use backstory to inform characters’ reactions.
Our life experiences determine how we react to seemingly insignificant events in our everyday lives. It’s not enough to show your characters’ emotions on the page. Those feelings have to come from somewhere.
That somewhere may be a character’s innate personality. For example, maybe an introverted character dislikes being the center of attention. She feels mortified when her husband throws a surprise party for her fortieth birthday. You don’t need a complex history for every emotional reaction.
However, every person has at least a little baggage. That baggage often drives behaviors that surprise and confuse people around us. A character who suffered a lot of loss in their childhood may fear emotional intimacy in a new relationship. One from a working-class background may feel uncomfortable paying a housekeeper to clean her house, even if she and her husband can afford it. You don’t always need to explain the history behind these reactions, but as the writer you should know them. This will help you create consistent, realistic characters.
Weave emotional content into setting descriptions.
When you describe setting, don’t just give readers the sensory details. Include how your point-of-view character feels in that place. We all have strong emotional connections to certain environments. Your characters’ backstories will inform their reactions to the setting.
For example, imagine your main character endured a traumatic experience in an elevator. You can describe his fight-or-flight response kicking in when he gets into one — or when he sees the bank of elevator doors and detours to the stairs instead. Don’t stop at describing the elevators, then sending your character to the stairs. Work some physiological sensations into the mix to give readers a hint that there’s more to know about him.
Show your characters’ choices to reveal or hide their emotions.
How characters choose to communicate their emotions to others reveals a lot about their relationships and values. Sometimes they’ll throw emotional reactions at each others’ feet: you should’ve known this would upset me. Other times, they’ll keep it under wraps. And just like in real life, some characters will possess more skill at managing their emotional expression than others.
In the case of the character’s fear of elevators, imagine he’s at a conference and runs into someone he’d really hoped to connect with — and that person is on their way upstairs. Does he cop a story about needing the exercise and taking the stairs? What if his companion says “knock yourself out, I had knee surgery last month so I’m going to take the elevator?” He doesn’t want to appear uninterested in making this connection. Maybe he says “ah, what the heck, I’ll exercise later” and hopes he can act normal for the ride. Then you can show his attempts to play it cool while his nerves threaten to get the best of him.
You can work emotion into every scene in your novel. When you do, your characters become three-dimensional people in readers’ hearts and minds. Their emotions are no longer generic because they spring from rich histories and personalities, the same as anyone we’d meet in real life. And the better your readers get to know your characters, the more invested they’ll feel in your story.