characters / descriptors / writers resources

How Characters Show Emotion Part III

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 emotion. Many are culled from other author’s writings (so use them for inspiration, not in your own writing!)–how they effectively communicated the emotion (effective for me, anyway) and others from books on body language. They’re in both the character’s POV and that of one who is watching. They help me make sure my character’s body language is in sync with what they’re feeling.

Note: This is updated from an earlier publication to reflect more amazing insights from authors I read.

This article covers Emotions O-Z. For Emotions A-O:


  • mouth firmly closed, lowering brow, slight frown


  • grunted as he shifted, trying to keep his ankles from paining him
  • in the thick soup of his brain
  • did her ragged little insults result even in a flesh wound?
  • didn’t so much regain consciousness as he began sensing pain


  • Wears power as comfortably as a pair of mucklucks
  • Fear had found its way into his proud chest, into the cast of his eyes and the set of his ruined jaw
  • Electricity radiated like the hum of a power plant
  • He was in the presence of a formidable individual
  • Approaching the hum of a high-voltage transformer
  • The cold look of a trained operative
  • Power player
  • Quiet authority
  • Emotional rebar
  • Adrenaline hangover


Handed it over with the pride of a dog delivering a very slobbery bone

Sadness Seen in…

  • bowing postures of the body wall
  • in the cry face and lip-pout
  • in gazing-down
  • in a slumped (i.e., flexed-forward) posture of the shoulders
  • in the audible sigh.
  • drooping eyelids
  • flaccid muscles
  • hanging head
  • contracted chest
  • lowered lips, cheeks, and jaw (“all sink downwards from their own weight”)
  • raised inner-ends of the eyebrows and remaining motionless and passive Anatomy
  • In acute sadness, muscles of the throat constrict, repeated swallowing occurs, the eyes close
  • Facial signs include frowning eyebrows mouth pouted or compressed


  • a blush especially low down the body does the blush extend


  • one-armed push-up
  • rolled out, dropped to the carpet, did a few push-ups, a few sit-ups, picked up two twenty-five pound dumbbells and did a hundred curls with each arm.
  • Two hardest words for Zeke to say were ‘I quit’
  • Leaned back in his chair, shrewd eyes fixed on Jonathan
  • He went face to face around the room.


  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Angry outbursts.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Low energy level.
  • Constant worrying.
  • Propensity for mistakes.
  • Thoughts about death or suicide.
  • Trouble getting along with others.
  • Withdrawing from others.
  • Hiding from responsibilities.
  • Carelessness
  • I find it difficult to concentrate because of distracting thoughts.
  • I worry about things that don’t matter.
  • I feel jittery.
  • I get diarrhea.
  • I imagine terrifying scenes.
  • I cannot keep anxiety-provoking pictures and images out of my mind.
  • My stomach gets tense.
  • I pace up and down nervously.
  • I am bothered by unimportant thoughts running through my mind.
  • I become immobilized.
  • I feel I am losing out on things because I cannot make decisions fast enough.
  • I perspire.
  • I cannot stop thinking worrisome thoughts.
  • Become irritable when you have to wait in line or get caught in a traffic jam?
  • Eat, drink, or smoke in an attempt to relax and/or relieve tension?
  • Worry about your work or other deadlines at night and/or on weekends?
  • Wake up in the night thinking about all the things you must do the next day?
  •  Feel impatient at the slowness with which many events take place?
  • Find yourself short of time to complete everything that needs to take place?
  • Become upset because things have not gone your way
  • Tend to lose your temper and get irritable?
  • Wake up in the night and have a hard time getting back to sleep?
  • Drive over the speed limit?
  • Interrupt people while they are talking or complete their sentences for them?
  • Forget about appointments and/or lose objects
  • signs of stress: My heart beats faster.
  • symptoms of stress such as tension, pain in the neck or shoulders, or headaches


  • Frowning
  • Twitching  
  • Eyelids Breathing rapid    
  • Breathing irregular    
  • Mouth tight    
  • Swallowing
  • Be aware of nervous gestures: If someone brushes their hair back with their fingers, their thoughts conflict with yours. If someone is biting their lip, they are anticipating something.


  • The wider the gesture, the closer someone is to you, the warmer his opinions of you
  • Watch head position. tilted heads are trying to convince you of their honesty
  • Check their arms. The worst thing that you can do to people with crossed arms is to challenge them in one way or another. This annoys them. If someone rests their arms behind their neck, they are open to what is being discussed.
  • Lowered eyebrows and squinted eyes illustrate an attempt at understanding. It’s usually skeptical.
  • Forced smiles only involve the muscles around the mouth


  • She was into a sobbing, shaking, nose-running, chest-heaving, gasping-for-breath, flat-out-crying fit
  • Recalled him with a shudder
  • She felt a lump in her throat and a tightening knot in her stomach
  • Wasn’t enough warm milk and Ambien in the world to let me sleep


  • His legs buckled, and he fell to the ground


  • the oppressive reek of excess


  • Twilier drew her right arm across her belly, rested her left elbow on it, and began chewing a thumb cuticle that already looked raw
  • Can you add to this list? How do you convey emotion in your characters?

More descriptors:

What Do Emotions Look Like?

178 Ways to Describe Women’s Clothing

Funny One Liners I’ve Read in Books

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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26 thoughts on “How Characters Show Emotion Part III

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  5. Currently I’m reading the Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Her descriptions are so amazing. You can feel the character in the first sentence. I love it when words can work magic like that. Great list!


  6. What a great chest of treasures – thank you so much, Jacqui. I always appreciate this kind of info from you and often incorporate the ideas (not the specific words or phrases) into my work.
    Can’t wait to hear more about your class.


    • I started this collection because I’d blank out when trying to show my character’s emotional state. Now, I have a 120-page document with these sort of tidbits. I have to do a search for the word, but then I get lots of ideas.


  7. There’s a really good writer’s tool called ‘The Emotion Thesaurus’ by Ackerman and Puglisi. I keep it on my desk and reach for it when I know I’m falling into the dreaded cliche trap. Thanks for this post!


  8. Thanks Jacqui. I want to put fwd an unrelated question to you. I have recently been struggling with describing a situation where two people are talking and their spoken words are almost exactly the opposite of what they are thinking. And it goes on for a bit. Do you have any advice on how to handle this? Also, as this is not direcltly related to your post, if you don’t want to answer I will understand.


    • That situation is at the heart of good storytelling–character says one thing and body language says the opposite. Do you ever notice people on TV saying, “Yes, I understand” while shaking their heads, ‘No’? You know their body can’t deliver what the words want it to.

      That’s how I’d do it–juxtapose the words over the body language. It makes for tension, drama, and other fundamental fiction traits.


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