characters / writers resources

How Your Characters Might Recognize an Emotion Part I

Emotion, as much as any other part of a story, must be shown, not told. How much more effective is it to say

He clenched is fists until his fingernails dug painfully into his palms

…rather than

He was so angry, he saw red.

I’ve collected a list of actions characters display and participate in to communicate their emotions. Some are culled from other author’s writings–how they effectively communicated the emotion (effective for me, anyway) and others from books on body language. You’ll find some are in the main character’s POV; some from that of one who is watching. They help me make sure my character’s body language is in sync with what they’re feeling.

Here’s emotions A-F. Emotions G-Z are in the next post.


Credit: Nemo

What emotion do you see and why?

  • cold anger,
  • clenching jaws or grinding teeth
  • uncovering the teeth
  • headache
  • stomach ache
  • increased and rapid heart rate
  • sweating, especially your palms
  • feeling hot in the neck/face
  • shaking or trembling
  • dizziness

Emotionally you may feel:

  • like you want to get away
  • irritated
  • sad or depressed
  • guilty
  • resentful
  • anxious
  • like striking out verbally or physically

Also, you may notice that you are:

  • rubbing your head
  • cupping your fist with other hand
  • pacing
  • getting sarcastic
  • losing your sense of humor
  • acting in abusive/abrasive manner
  • craving a drink, a smoke or other substances that relax you
  • raising your voice
  • beginning to yell, scream, or cry



Photo credit: Peacock and Presley

  • Sweaty palms.
  • lip-compression,
  • lip-bite,
  • tongue-show,
  • tongue-in-cheek;
  • hand-to-hand, hand-to-body, and hand-behind-head hand-to-face


  • the eyes and mouth opened wide, the eyebrows raised


  • frown or wrinkle beneath the lower eyelids


  • covering the mouth with the hands
  • rubbing the side of the nose
  • leaning away from you
  • micro shrug
  • voice pitch increases
  • Liars, he says, use more “negative emotion” words (hurt, ugly, nasty) and fewer first-person singulars


  • Recent Loss – through death, divorce, separation, broken relationship, loss of job, money, status, self-confidence, self-esteem, loss of religious faith, loss of interest in friends, sex, hobbies, activities previously enjoyed
  • forehead is wrinkled in the middle, but not across the whole breadth, as when the eyebrows are raised in surprise.
  • Change in Personality – sad, withdrawn, irritable, anxious, tired, apathetic Change in Sleep Patterns – insomnia, often with early waking or oversleeping, nightmares Change in Eating Habits – loss of appetite and weight, or overeating
  • Fear of losing control- harming self or others
  • Low self esteem- feeling worthless, shame, overwhelming guilt, self-hatred, “everyone would be better off without me” No hope for the future – believing things will never get better; that nothing will ever change
  • Other things to watch for- Suicidal impulses, statements, plans; giving away favorite things; previous suicide attempts


  • hold body and head erect, square shoulders and clench fists



Photo credit: evidence-based living

  • curled upper lip
  • narrowed or partly closed eyes;
  • side-to-side head-shakes;
  • protrusions of the tongue.
  • guttural sounds (“ach” or “ugh”), a
  • nose is drawn up and wrinkled
  • sneers or snarls at another


  • throat-clear is a nonverbal indication of doubt


  • heart race
  • breathing quicken
  • cheeks flush
  • skin tingles
  • pupils dilate


  • Listen for a subtle delay in responses to questions. An honest answer comes quickly from memory. Lies require a quick mental review of what they have told others to avoid inconsistency and to make up new details as needed.
  • Be conscious of their wording. Verbal expression can give many clues as to whether a person is lying, such as:
  • Lowered heads indicate a reason to hide something. If it is after an explanation, then he may be lying, unsure if what they said was correct Look into their eyes. Liars will consecutively look at you and look away a number of times.
  • People who look away while you are talking to them are thinking about something else.
  • Using/repeating your own exact words when answering a question
  • NOT using contractions
  • Avoiding direct statements or answers
  • Speaking excessively in an effort to convince
  • Speaking in a monotonous tone
  • Leaving out pronouns (he, she, it, etc.)
  • Speaking in muddled sentences
  • Allow silence to enter the conversation. Observe how uncomfortable and restless the person becomes.
  • Change the subject quickly. While an innocent person would be confused by the sudden shift in the conversation and may try to return to the previous subject, a liar will be relieved and welcome the change.
  • Watch his throat. A person may be either trying to lubricate their throat when he/she lies OR swallowing to avoid the tension built up
  • Watch hands, arms and legs, which tend to be limited, stiff, and self-directed when the person is lying. The hands may touch or scratch their face, nose or behind an ear, but are not likely to touch their chest or heart
  • See if they are telling you too much



Photo credit: Being Latino online magazine

  • tight muscles
  • cold hands or feet
  • fluttery stomach
  • shortness of breath
  • diarrhea or frequent urination
  • lower pulse rate
  • general feelings of weakness or in extreme cases, complete freezing-up, or paralysis
  • trembling lips or trembling body
  • fast heart beat, sweating

Fear may show in

  • release of apocrine odor
  • increase in heart/breathing rate
  • crouching,  crying
  • faster eye-blink flashbulb eyes , staring eyes with dilated pupils
  • the fear grin, tense-mouth
  • hair-bristling, squirm cues
  • tightened muscle tension
  • §  sweaty palms throat-clearing
  • an audibly tense tone-of-voice

Can you add to this list? How do you convey emotion in your characters?

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman.  She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.comEditorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersIMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything and Technology in Education. Currently, she’s working on a techno-thriller that should be ready this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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2 thoughts on “How Your Characters Might Recognize an Emotion Part I

  1. The more I read your tips for fiction-writing, the more I wonder what I’m missing out on! We non-fictioners don’t get to inject this kind of emotion into our writing so much! I remember enjoying English lessons as a kid at school, and really enjoying writing stories. Not sure what happened to that…….Well, maybe “science” happened to that! At some point I clearly swapped fiction for fact. Still love reading my crime novels though!


    • Have you ever tried creative non-fiction? It takes the best of fiction writing to convey the most serious of non-fiction topics. I’m considering it for my paleo-historic interests.

      And, scientific fiction (as opposed to science fiction) is quite popular right now. Take the thrill and wonder in your science topics and weave it into a chilling story. I can see you doing it, Nicky!


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