Paula looks at how characters show their emotions.
I just treated myself
(courtesy of a Christmas gift voucher!) to an ‘Emotion Thesaurus’, mainly
because I liked the look of this when I previewed a few pages online. Yes, I
know there are various websites with lists of physical reactions to different
emotions, but I decided this one was definitely worth keeping on my desk as a
‘real’ book with pages I can flip through to find what I want.
contains (in alphabetical order) 75 different emotions, ranging from Adoration
to Worry, with two pages devoted to each. Firstly, there is a long list of external physical signals e.g. twisting a
watch or ring when anxious, or tapping the foot when impatient. The next two lists are internal sensations and mental responses. For instance, fear may cause a racing
heartbeat (internal) and images of what-could-happen flashing through mind
(mental). Another interesting section shows the cues of a suppressed emotion –
a forced smile when disappointed, or staying silent when angry.
Thinking of Ana’s post on
Monday, I had to smile when one of the hints in the book suggested limiting
verbal and non-verbal reactions to three at the most, since a list of actions
and reactions can become, as we’ve already said, a list of stage directions.
Another hint recommends keeping
any movements simple, since complicated movements or ones that are too drawn
out can detract from the emotion: He held
up both hands. “Whoa, hold on a minute,” is far more effective than, “Wait a minute,” he said, holding up both
his hands level with his head with palms facing forward and fingers spread out.
Okay, maybe the latter is over-exaggerated, but I’m sure you get the idea.
Often a brief non-verbal action combined with a verbal comment will give the
reader enough information to picture and hear the character.
Two linked question in the
book made me think: Do you have a favourite body part when showing emotions? Do
you rely too much on facial expressions? Hmm, my answer is yes to both, so I’m going to
challenge myself to use some different body parts!
And here’s an obvious one
that we sometimes forget: characters react differently! One may run fingers through
their hair when worried; another may twist a finger around a few strands of
hair; another may scratch the back of their head (etc). Similarly, relief may
cause one character to blow out their cheeks with a huge breath, whereas
another will close their eyes and exhale quietly.
I’m sure I will find my new
book very useful, but at the same time, I’m aware of the danger of overdoing
things. The cliché of ‘show, don’t tell’ should never be taken to the point where
you are overloading your characters (and your readers) with actions for and
reactions to every emotion. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you should write
‘She was angry’ every time she’s annoyed. At the same time, you
don't necessarily need to describe some physical signal of her anger every time either! The
reader will soon spot the times when you’re trying too hard to ‘show’ your
characters’ emotions and may even grow weary of too many actions. As with most things, less is more.