characters / descriptors / 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.

Please note: Where I add the section ‘You might write it this way’, these snippets are taken from published books I’ve read. Don’t use them! Simply let them inspire you.


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

You might write it this way:

  • anger steaming behind him like coal smoke from a power plant
  • a stiff and righteous anger
  • Dangerous stillness about him
  • Faceful of bad attitude
  • testosterone that oozes like rank body odor from the kind of man who likes to throw his weight around
  • His hands were balled in fists, his arms and shoulders trembling
  • Its not like that, she said feeling defensive
  • Rachel loved to make lists. Now she ticked off my deadly sins on her fingers as she talked.
  • Dangerously close to pushing a button most people didn’t know existed
  • Felt his stomach tighten
  • swallowed a string of profanities
  • through clenched teeth



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

You might write it this way:

  • a smile limped across her face and back into her pocket
  • the air of a person clinging to a wall of soap
  • Her wounds were superficial, but her anxiety went bone-deep
  • Handshakes, tight smiles, a little awkwardness


  • the eyes and mouth opened wide, the eyebrows raised


  • frown or wrinkle beneath the lower eyelids

You might write it this way:

  • Once he starts watching, a croc gnawing on his leg can’t get his attention
  • Tasted the interval of the delay for the presence of precious metal. His assay said: gold
  • Willed himself to his knees, struggled to his feet, and spun, disoriented and dizzy, searching for the way out


  • 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

You might write it this way:

  • Her high cheekbones were sunken. Her eyes were dark circles staring out with bewilderment and fear, the bright blue color terrifyingly dim
  • A heaviness, a cloud of depression and weariness, seemed to draw all of Ashton’s features downward
  • He could see the weight in her walk
  • Like an emotional sticky tray
  • Like an emotional Venus fly trap
  • I felt weightless and anonymous
  • Youth left waiving from the platform as the train pulled out
  • His voice had the pallid, toneless quality of his skin
  • A sullen barista


  • 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

You might write it this way:

  • If I’d had a tail, I’d have been wagging it like a dog getting a pat from his owner.
  • An intoxicating brew of fear, awe and ecstasy


  • emotiontight 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

You might write it this way:

  • Her face had gone pale, her eyes glassy with fear. Her arms trembled
  • Staring in doe-eyed disbelief
  •  Frisson of fear (delicious)
  • The maid looked even more nervous now and Pat instantly felt sorry for her. Someone wasn’t treating her right. You could always tell that with people
  • Zeke felt the jittery spike of adrenaline shoot through him and his heart banging against his ribs.
  • My breath was trapped somewhere in my body.
  • Her head throbbed steadily and her throat was rough and dry
  • Smacking of his heart against his ribs, the sweat-damp shirt clinging to his shoulders, the salt tinge burning his nostrils
  • Sweat was pouring off his forehead
  • Ground his molars
  • Sure the guard was able to hear the bass drum that was booming in my chest
  • He had not even a passing acquaintance with fear
  • Hovered on the brink of panic, keeping it at bay one breath at a time
  • My paranoia was bleeding outward
  • My blood just ran cold
  • Her stomach was in a knot and her throat was dry
  • When Calibrisi left, Jessica stood up and walked to the door, shut it, then stood for a moment and leaned against the door. She shut her yes and stood still. Then she walked back to her desk. She sat down, and stared at the phone.
  • a smile limped across her face and back into her pocket
  • the silence screamed at them


  • 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

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

More descriptors for your writing:

113 Ways to Characterize Your Protagonist

How to Describe a Fight

How to Describe Dogs

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

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  5. Thanks for these suggestions, Jacqui, a wonderful way to see emotion in story writing. I agree with the others. Much better to put an action with emotion than just saying so. ~Victoria Marie Lees


  6. Terrific advice, Jacqui.
    [off topic – you asked about the Thunderbird underground railroad. I received an answer from fellow blogger Kevin @
    “Everything I have seen looks ‘photo chopped’ and it just sounds like a lot of hot air to be honest. For one thing, there is no way they could hide that large a project from surveillance; Second, what good would that even do them when most of the air force belongs in a “People’s Museum?” lol. There might be something somewhere underground or partially underground, but it’s more likely to be housing that plane Lil Kim is going to use to flee the country when the mobs finally come for his head.”
    (Hope I did that link correctly, I’m awful at that)


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