I’ve recently ordered a new edition for my books on writing technique shelf – which is only slightly messy ahem – and I’m impatient for it to arrive. It’s called The Emotion Thesaurus, a writer’s guide to creative expression. I came upon it while reading the latest SCWBI mag (society of children’s book writers and illustrators) and got the kind of ecstatic buzz only writers with an addiction to any book with wordy words in it can be.
And it got me thinking.
Conveying character emotions is one of the most challenging aspects of writing – for me anyway – and I’m talking about getting it across in a subtle show rather than tell kind of way here. I hate writing, ‘Rosie felt scared, or ‘Joe was angry” that sort of thing. I feel lazy when I do it and am always sweating over trying to find a way to show the reader how the character is feeling without stating it – and in a new non clichéd way.
It doesn’t always work. I’m not always successful. But what I have discovered is one of the best ways of doing it is to imbue the character with some physical habits which might help. For example, Rosie tends to scratch her neck when she’s upset or uncomfortable. It’s something someone I know does. Though they don’t realise they do it so let’s keep that to ourselves.
I also try to pay attention to what people do when they’re angry or scared or annoyed or any other myriad emotions. The reaction changes according to the person of course. Not everyone gets the shakes, or screams when they’re scared. Some people go very very quiet. One person I know smiles when they’re really angry at what someone is saying to them. Another person closes their eyes when they’re talking about something uncomfortable.
It depends on the person and that’s the key. You need to know your character to be able to convey their emotional state. And then try to get it across in dialogue and their physical responses but try to keep it subtle.
Something I like to do when I’m editing is a global search for the world ‘felt’ and then try to find another way of writing that passage without it. Eyes is another word I have an irritating reliance on. But everyone has their crutch, don’t they. What’s yours?