Often we are tempted to simply tell readers what a character feels. We have many words to describe emotions, so why not use them? The problem is that naming an emotion tells the readers something rather than showing it. Just think about real life. How often does someone just come out and say, “I’m angry with you?” Maybe every great once in a while, but most of the time we realize someone is made at us by his or her actions: terse words, avoidance, blazing glances, jerky actions. The same should be true with our characters. Let the readers figure out that your character is angry by his actions.
How you can show emotions
Rather than stating the emotion, show how a character responds to something. Use the character’s reaction to or interaction with something. This keeps the story action-oriented, which helps move the story forward. It also shows characterization better than simply telling what the character feels. As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” Therefore, readers learn more about the character by seeing the actions the emotions bring.
DON’T: His words angered me.
DO: I clenched my jaw and bit back words that would hurt him as much as he hurt me.
DON’T: Fear gripped me when he pointed the gun my direction. I couldn’t move a muscle.
DO: When he pointed the gun at me, icy crystals flowed through my veins and froze my muscles.
Here are a couple of examples from my novel, Peril: Fast Track Thriller #1:
EX. 1 – The thin, beardless guard nodded to his bearded partner. In sync, they pulled out twin Ruger .40 SWs and aimed them at King Ahmad.
Lady Anne’s hand shook, spilling water onto the floor.
Her shaking hands shows us that the guards’ actions caused her fear.
EX. 2 – She had been certain it was God’s will for her to protect the first Muslim king to convert to Christianity. It had been an honor to be asked, so maybe she had allowed pride to convince her to accept. Maybe it wasn’t God’s will after all, so she had no right to expect His protection.
When she couldn’t stand the babble of questions in her head any more, she pounded her fists on the countertop.
The pounding shows us that the questions frustrated her to the point of anger.
No emotions were mentioned in either of these examples, yet the emotions Lady Anne felt were very clear. No telling, only showing; that’s what vivid descriptions do and why they touch us so much more.