characters / communication / descriptors / writers / writers resources

What Do Emotions Look Like?

It is an ongoing test of a writer’s ability, our facility with showing, not telling. Readers don’t want a narrative of how a character feels. And if that emotional character isn’t your Point of View character, you can’t say things like, I felt diminished. I was afraid. If you’re not in that character’s head as the POV, you have to relay their emotions by showing what they look like to an outsider.

Not as hard as it sounds. It’s more of a habit. Start by watching people around you. See what you can tell about what’s going through their minds while they’re not talking. Notice which body parts give them away. It really doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong; what matters is that you notice the changes in their body as their emotions leak out.

Here’s a partial list I use to inspire my creativity when I get stuck. As with all of these lists, don’t use them verbatim; adjust them with your author’s voice, to suit your situations.

And, add your own in the comment section. Share with the rest of the community:

  • Her wounds were superficial, but her anxiety went bone-deep
  • Flimsy feelings
  • Unorthodox personal charm
  • Power player
  • Quiet authority
  • Faceful of bad attitude
  • intellectual myopia
  • looked at me with all the expression of a dinner plate
  • Thoughts were like birds rattling around in a cage
  • Like an emotional sticky tray
  • Like an emotional Venus fly trap
  • I felt weightless and anonymous
  • Youth left waiving from the platform as the rain pulled out
  • Workout clothes, thigh pants, headband, busy look, 2 Starbucks coffees
  • Her face had gone pale, her eyes glassy with fear. Her arms trembled
  • Staring in doe-eyed disbelief
  • anger steaming behind him like coal smoke from a power plant
  • the oppressive reek of excess testosterone that oozes like rank body odor from the kind of man who likes to throw his weight around

For more descriptors for characters and settings, click here.


2 thoughts on “What Do Emotions Look Like?

  1. Nice post. I particularly like the idea that emotions “leak out” of a person’s physical self. It seems that, as writers, the most difficult hurdle for us to leap over is sharing our perceptions with our readers. Describing emotions in a tangible way can be done if your “leak out” concept is kept in mind. Words don’t really do much to describe emotions, unless those words focus on something objective. Most people have a reallly hard time describing how they feel because they are often unable to step away from their personal situation and inner-emotional state; that’s where the job of the observer–a writer in this case–comes in.
    For example, *The glow of hope drained from her face as she processed the facts and figures.

    Or *The sweat on his brow glistened under the bright lights of pressure…

    Perhaps *He tried to smile away his nervousness but his shaking hands greeted anticipation with an unsteady grip.

    — E from EB


    • I like your descriptions. It looks from your blog that you’re as much photographer as writer. Interesting mix. From my limited experience with Photoshop, it’s a great way to show emotion in real-world pictures.


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