As writers we’ve all had “show, don’t tell” pounded into our heads by teachers, editors, and other writers. That’s all well and good in most situations, but what if you have a character who doesn’t like to show how they’re feeling. How do you portray their emotional state without coming right out and telling the reader?
I ran into this problem with one of the characters from my James McCarthy adventure/mystery series. Deputy Nestor Yazzi, introduced in the second book, is one of my favorite characters to write—but he’s also one of the most complicated. Nestor is smart, strong-willed, and honest as the day is long. He’s also even-tempered, emotionally reserved, and stone-faced.
Therein lies the problem. Showing how a character feels when they don’t want to can be a brick wall when faced with bringing emotion to a scene. Here are a few ways I managed to handle the challenge.
One of the first, and dare I say the most important things you need to do is get to know your character. I mean really get to know them. This is something you should do with all your characters, no matter what type of person they are. The better you know them, the better you’ll be able to write the things that set them apart from others.
This is especially important with emotionally reserved characters. The signs they give are going to be much more subtle than a more upfront and open character.
These are just a few of the questions I like to ask, but you get the idea. Get to know the character first and your words will ring truer when it comes to their emotional reactions.
We all have tells when we’re facing a difficult or upsetting situation. Emotionally suppressed individuals do as well, but the signs are more subtle. You’re not likely to see wild hand gestures or hear loud outbursts peppered with four-letter words. The signs will be harder to spot, but no less powerful. In fact, when written well the emotional impact can be even stronger.
Body language and facial expressions can say a lot about how a person feels about a situation. No matter how hard we try not to react to bad news, our bodies can give us away. It may be as simple as a slight change in skin color or a nervous habit like tapping your fingers on a tabletop.
When faced with an emotional situation, some characters may choose to hide their feelings by simply walking away. We’ll use Nestor Yazzi as an example. In Cold Karma, the third James McCarthy book, Nestor is faced with a reality that cuts him all the way to the core:
The three watched as the tech carefully removed the chain and brushed the remaining soil from the tags. He slipped the lot into a clear bag, then sealed and marked it before handing it over. Nestor took the bag and held it up in the floodlight’s beam. He closed his eyes and paused for a few seconds, and then passed it to James before standing and walking away in silence.
Nestor’s reaction is simple but speaks volumes. In this short passage, we never see any outward display of emotion, but we feel Nestor’s pain none the less.
I’ve heard it said that the eyes speak what the mouth cannot. I know it may sound cliche, but they really are the window to the soul. You can tell a lot about someone's emotional state by watching their eyes.
They may gaze off into the distance in a pensive or thoughtful way. This could be a sign of melancholy or confusion, depending on the context of the scene. A character might avert their eyes indicating they may be hiding a visceral reaction to a particularly gruesome scene. Your character might be a politician and constantly shift their eyes around the room indicating they are not comfortable answering a specific line of questioning.
Physical changes in the eyes can also indicate different emotional states. Their color may brighten or dull showing a mood change. Redness can also indicate an increase in blood pressure hinting at a reaction of anger. These kinds of changes are involuntary reactions and out of the character’s control, so they work well for those characters who would otherwise not show emotion.
Dialogue is another great place to bring out a character’s emotional state. Changes in speech patterns can be a big indicator of how a character is feeling. They may speed up or slow down their usual pace or use words that they would not normally use.
If you have a character who chooses their words carefully, they may use more contractions when they are excited or under stress. They may also slip in a four-letter word or two when they normally don’t use that kind of language. This requires that you already have a well-established and distinctive style of speaking for each of your characters. That way when they do slip up it becomes obvious to the reader and clues them into the character’s emotional state.
What a character doesn't say can be just as important. They may avoid certain conversations or change the subject entirely, indicating that they are not comfortable talking about the subject. Sometimes they will not speak at all, as in the example given above. The lack of a response can sometimes speak louder than any number of words.
When a character is hesitant to tell you how they feel, you can rely on the other characters to chime in and provide the information. Conversations between other people in the scene are a great place to weave in observations on the emotional state of a character.
When using this method, be careful to keep the conversation feeling natural. Don’t let it become a dump of information and insight into the reserved character. The people having the conversation aren’t omniscient, so it should be centered around what they’ve observed and how they think someone feels.
Will nodded. “Sarah told me about the dog tags this afternoon. She’s still waiting on dental records to make a positive ID. How did Yazzi take it?”
“He didn’t say much, but I think it hit him pretty hard. He barely talked on the way back to the house.”
James slid his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in tight. “It’s Nestor. You should have seen his face when they found Virgil’s dog tags. He tried not to show it, but I could tell it hit him pretty hard.”
Both examples give the information we need, but in a natural, conversational way.
A third person narrator can also be used to impart the information. If your narrator is omniscient, they can see into the character’s head and let the reader know what’s going on inside in contrast to the exterior.
When using a close third-person or a first-person narrator, you will need to stick to what the POV character is aware of. If you’re writing from the stoic character’s POV, then it’s okay to get into their head, otherwise stick to the external observations and opinions of the POV character.
Every character presents their own set of challenges for the writer. Put yourself in their shoes and try to feel what they are feeling. Pay close attention to your own reactions and draw on your life experiences. Most of all, don’t give up on them. Complicated characters are the most interesting ones.
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ldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).
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