Drawing readers into your character’s emotions

Man with cardboard box on his head and terrified look skethed. terrified; frozen; scared man.

The simplest way of conveying an emotion is to label it. For example, you could write that a character is devastated, elated or mortified. You could say the character looked wistfully or spoke angrily. While these labels may be accurate, they are unlikely to engage your readers. Rather than encouraging readers to experience the emotion for themselves, these labels tell readers how to feel. As we will explore in this blog, there are more effective ways of drawing readers into your story and the emotions of your characters.

Vivid writing is concrete and it evokes the senses. Readers experience a good story in the same way they experience the rest of their lives—through their bodies. The experience may begin in their heads, but it translates into something more. If you describe the smells, tastes, sounds, sights and sensations experienced by your characters as specifically as possible, your story will be more believable. This is particularly important when it comes to conveying emotions.

There are several ways you can draw readers into the emotions experienced by your characters. Start by looking for actions and dialogue that show the emotion. If your character is angry, she might slap down her coat or kick dust. The way we speak and what we say also reveals how we feel. It might help to describe the bodily sensations of the emotion, such as trembling fingers and a racing heart. You could also describe facial expressions. Even description of the setting can be used to evoke feelings.

The main thing to keep in mind is that you want to gradually guide your reader through an experience of the emotion. Consider the following excerpt from “A Star Called Henry” by Roddy Doyle. In this scene young Henry discovers his brother underneath the tarpaulin where they had been sleeping. They are homeless boys living in Dublin. Take note of the concrete and specific sensory details that make the heavy emotion underscoring this scene unforgettable. Notice also how the short fragmented sentences convey a sense of rising panic.

“I tried to wake him, to get him sitting. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t get a proper grip. I found his cheeks and rubbed them. All I wanted was to hear another cough. I still couldn’t see him. I searched for the edge of the covering, to give him air. To see him. I rolled along the low tarpaulin and kept rolling until I was out from under it. I stood up and lifted it and peered back in.

I could see him now. I let morning light in by lifting the tarpaulin roof with my back. I knew he was dead, even as I rushed back in. His mouth was open, and his eyes, staring into the darkness. There was a mark, where a line of watery blood had run from his mouth past his ear. I rubbed it away with my sleeve. There was nothing in his eyes now, just what I thought was the memory of his last agony and terror—the last cough and the utter darkness on top of him. He was white and glazed. His mouth was stretched, the cracked, bursting lips were losing colour as I looked. …”