Posted On August 21, 2013 by Print This Post

Janice Hardy presents: Five Ways to Describe Emotions Without Making Your Character Feel Too Self Aware

I’m excited to introduce our latest Visiting Professor, author and blogger Janice Hardy. I’ve been a lurker on Janice’s popular blog, The Other Side of the Story, which is chock full of wonderful advice for writers. Today, Janice talks about the importance of emotion, the key to connecting with your reader.  

Welcome to RU, Janice!

Emotions are critical to making a character feel real, but describing them from afar can sometimes leave a reader feeling a little disconnected from that character. The descriptions don’t feel like a character feeling but like the author telling the reader how the character feels.

In a distant third person or omniscient perspective it’s not as noticeable (we expect those POVs to be detached), but if the point of view is a tight third or first person? We risk losing that emotional connection with our reader.

For example:

I wiped the sweat from my brow with a trembling hand, fear from my narrow escape coursing through my veins.

Do you feel her fear? Probably not, because even she’s not feeling it. Scared people don’t typically think about what’s coursing through their veins or why it’s doing it, they just feel and think and react.

Janice_HardyStill trembling, I stumbled to the closest bench and plopped down before I fell down. Sweat stung my eyes and I wiped my face on my shirt. That was way too close. If I hadn’t run when I did… I shuddered.

This shows how the narrator feels, what she’s thinking when she feels it, how her body is reacting, without making her conscious of it. It’s looking outward from within her skin, not inward at her skin. We don’t have to explain she’s just had a narrow escape, because we’ve given enough clues so the reader can easily surmise the why.

Here are some ways you can show emotions without having to step outside of your character.

1. Use physical symptoms the character might experience

Emotions trigger physical reactions, and these are clues readers can use to determine how a characters feels. Racing heart, shaking, numb fingers, sweaty palms all signal fear (or possibly love in the right circumstances). Also consider involuntary reactions, such as blushing or gasping.

Try: They laughed and he turned away, face burning, yet fingers icy cold.

Instead of: He turned away, his face bright red in embarrassment.

2. Use thoughts or dialog to suggest an emotion

Emotions can trigger both a mental and a verbal response. Perhaps one character silently urges another to get on with it to show impatience. Maybe she has a moment of self-reflection. A quick What a jerk can convey the same emotion as a frown, and feel more natural than

Try: What a jerk!  “Excuse me, I’m being a what?”

Instead of: She frowned at what a jerk he was being.

3. Use subtext to suggest emotions just under the surface 

Sometimes what a character doesn’t say is more telling. An outward demeanor that contradicts the inner thoughts and feelings shows multiple layers of emotions. Subtext can also add conflict to a scene and can help increase the micro-tension.

Try: “Why of course you can stay,” she said, ripping her napkin into small pieces.

Instead of: She didn’t answer, even though she knew John wanted her to say yes.

4. Use external senses to reinforce an emotion

Heightened emotions can heighten the senses, so perceptions might be stronger. Fear can induce a hyper-awareness, love can make things feel more sensual. Fear is often shown by how the stomach or throat reacts, but what about sounds or smells? Ears might ring, or things might sound distant and muffled. Scents might trigger memories that evoke the emotion you want to show.

Try: It wasn’t just footsteps behind her–the stench of cheap cologne, stale beer, and desperation crept ever closer. She picked up her pace.

Instead of: Fear made her quicken her steps. Someone was following her.

5. Use imagery to suggest the emotion

Poetry is all about using imagery to evoke emotion, and that works just as well in prose. Metaphor, simile, and colorful language can be an effective way to convey emotions without ever using a specific emotion word.

Try: The world fell away, drained of all color but him, standing in the sunlight.

Instead of: He was so handsome I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

Each character will react differently to the same emotion, so understanding how a character might react can guide us on how to describe how she feels. Some people feel things more externally, refusing to think about them on an emotional level. Others think too much and try to deny reacting to things. And when one character reacts in a certain way, that provides another character a chance to react, so emotions can build off one another–for good or for bad.

Emotions can turn a ho-hum scene into one that stays in a reader’s mind long after the book is read. Don’t just say how a character feels–make the reader feel it too.

Capture the emotion and we capture the reader.


What are some of your “too aware” emotional pet peeves?


Editor Heather Webb joins us on Friday, August 23rd. 


The_ShifterBio: Janice Hardy offers more tips about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Story. She’s also the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices.

Her books include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. Connect with Janice via Twitter or visit her website, Fiction University.



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46 Responses to “Janice Hardy presents: Five Ways to Describe Emotions Without Making Your Character Feel Too Self Aware”

  1. Morning Janice!

    I’m a huge fan of your blog as well…I can’t begin to tell you how many of your posts I have in my “keeper” file!

    This line..The world fell away, drained of all color but him, standing in the sunlight. is perfect. When I read it I said OH!!! That’s it! =) Your examples are amazing….and yet another post to go into my keeper file.

    Thanks so much for posting with us today…I’m sure that line will be running through my head for most of it!



    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 21, 2013, 8:12 am
  2. Thanks Carrie! Glad you’ve found the blog helpful. The examples are my favorite part of the posts 🙂 It’s so much fun coming up with them.

    Posted by Janice Hardy | August 21, 2013, 8:38 am
  3. Oh, this is a good one. I like the examples.

    My peeve is excessive physical movements; describing getting up and walking toward something and then describing picking up an object and then the body turning… maybe one of those actions is needed if it’s interesting and shows something unique about the character. I once read the slowest fight scene ever because every physical movement was described in detail.

    Posted by Stephanie Scott | August 21, 2013, 9:59 am
  4. Hi Janice,

    I have other characters point out reactions to situations and make the heroine defend herself.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | August 21, 2013, 1:07 pm
  5. Haha…I just pictured about fifty different books with that same “The world fell away…” line. And by the way, Janice, your blog is one of my favorite sites on writing, and one of the ones that got me hooked on writing. I have a lot to thank you for!

    Posted by Monica Shortell | August 21, 2013, 1:53 pm
  6. Fantastic post! The examples were perfect. Telling emotion or showing it poorly is one of my biggest pet peeves when I’m reading!

    Posted by Jessica Flory | August 21, 2013, 2:01 pm
  7. Hi Janice!

    I absolutely love your blog. I spend a lot of time tweaking my sentences, which is part of the reason why I write so slow. Your examples of ‘categorizing’ emotional responses is fantastic. Love the one on using subtext. I’m printing this post to keep me on my toes.

    Thanks for blogging with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | August 21, 2013, 2:13 pm
  8. This was a terrific post, Janice. One I will refer to over and over again! Thanks.

    Posted by Carol Baldwin | August 21, 2013, 7:28 pm
  9. What a great post. I’m so glad I stopped by today.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Jackie | August 21, 2013, 7:39 pm
  10. Hi Janice
    Great post, thanks.
    I’m editing some early writing of mine and wincing at all the ‘he felt this’, ‘she felt that’ moments!
    The thing I still struggle with is using similar physical cues, so for instance in some suspense scenes, I feel like all the characters are drenched in sweat and shivering! 🙂 So, as you say, using dialogue, and other senses is where I need to get more creative, I think. Lots of good ideas to take away.
    Great post, thanks again

    Posted by Michael Cairns | August 22, 2013, 3:25 am
    • Finding new ways to describe the same emotion can be a challenge for sure. Mixing up how I described them certainly helps me, so hopefully it’ll give you some better ideas for those suspenseful scenes. I like sounds a lot for those moments, since unknown noises can be especially spooky.

      Posted by Janice Hardy | August 22, 2013, 12:48 pm
  11. I always love your examples, Janice! This was a great post.

    Posted by Nicole | August 22, 2013, 8:21 am
  12. Another great post, Janice! I, too, am one of your devoted “reader / lurkers” over at your website, and followed you over here today.

    When writing my first draft, my process is that I don’t take much time to come up with creative ways to describe emotions — instead, the characters initially are angry, sad, thoughtful, curious, etc. Then, in my 2nd, 3rd, 88th and subsequent drafts (LOL), I replace those boring and basic “placeholders” and try to come up with more entertaining and descriptive methods.

    Thanks for a great article … I’m sure I’ll refer to it often as I revise!!

    Posted by Rick B | August 22, 2013, 1:10 pm
  13. Just commenting to say that I linked this on Tumblr and a lot of people liked and shared it.

    This is a great revision post. I struggle with not repeating the same emotions, so this should be helpful for me personally.

    Posted by Chihuahua Zero | August 22, 2013, 6:23 pm
    • Thanks C0! You might try creating a list of emotion words you know you use a lot, and after the first draft is done, just do a search for them and edit away. I do that with my own “use too much” words. Comes in handy.

      Posted by Janice Hardy | August 23, 2013, 7:08 am
  14. Janice, I do enjoy your very informative blog. This one is a great reminder to put the emotions into my characters rather than “on” them.

    Posted by Linda Phillips | August 23, 2013, 9:31 am
  15. Great post Janice thanks!

    Posted by Jennifer Hayward | August 23, 2013, 10:09 am
  16. Good info. Lucky me I recently found your website by accident (stumbleupon).
    I’ve saved it for later!

    Posted by Quotes About Friends | April 8, 2014, 12:43 am
  17. This is a great post. =D Thank you!

    How’s this?:

    Another mark appeared along side the other. And another until it came to where the wall met the ceiling. Her mouth became dry and she licked her lips. She tried to yell to Raimo but it came out as a horse whisper. She stepped back over to him; and squeaked out, “Wake up!”

    Posted by darkocean | April 20, 2015, 6:35 am
  18. I have been struggling with a scene for days, feeling the emotions present like an occurrence than an experience. And your blog intervened, saving me pages about as exciting as stale bread. You’re a lifesaver Janice!

    Posted by Poulami | May 24, 2016, 1:15 pm
  19. How can I learn to do what you referenced in this article? Is it something that has to be learned “in the process of writing?”

    Posted by Jenn | December 29, 2016, 3:35 pm
    • You have to practice it, yes, but I gave you tips and examples on how to do that in this article. If you’re not sure how to do something I suggested (which might happen if you’re still new to writing), then try looking for more information on that topic and practicing that skill.

      For example, if you want to learn how to write better descriptions, you might study how to choose the best words to describe a scene, or how to use point of view to pick the right details to use.

      I’d also suggest visiting my site, http://www.fiction-university,com for more advice and help. I have thousands of articles to help writers, and you can read the ones that best fit what you’re working on.

      Posted by janice | December 30, 2016, 7:41 am
  20. Hi, loved the post tell me does this covey enough emotion.

    The light in his eyes, had faded biting his lips he drank slowly from a small
    glass which shattered on the floor.

    ” She was…”

    He ran a slow hand through his ruffled hair..

    ” She had been so pretty..”


    Suddenly a Tide of bleakness washed over his body.
    his soul felt as if was been torn from his chest. the hand trembled as he slid down to the ground and whispered like a word but only air escape his lips…
    The void was growing and he knew he would be alone forever.

    Please tell me what is better?

    Posted by Danielle | March 20, 2017, 8:03 pm
  21. What are some good metaphors to depict fear- I have already used his hear froze and his palms became sweaty.
    Great blog btw

    Posted by rad | May 11, 2017, 9:43 pm
    • I like to use metaphors that fit the world and characters. For example, I had a sailor character once who used “white as sail” (okay, that’s a simile, but it’s a good example).

      For physical symptoms, think about how you feel when you’re scared. Breath quickens, hands shake, stomachs get uneasy, hair prickles–any of these could be turned into metaphors.

      If you’re still stuck, check out Angela Ackerman’s and Becky Puglisi’s “Emotion Thesaurus” It covers all kinds of ways to describe and show emotion.

      Posted by janice | May 12, 2017, 10:11 am
  22. How to describe some one who is reckless vs educated
    how to describe someone who hate studying

    Posted by ben | June 26, 2017, 12:42 pm
  23. Wow! A light bulb just went off in my head when I read this! I will admit I am very guilty of writing boring sentences like the ones you used in your descriptions. I love your “try this” suggestions, you brought everything to life with just a few words. I feel like such a dunce now, because obviously I have been making major boo-boos without even realizing it. I am super excited to be learning all these tips, I’ve shelved my novel for now while I take myself back to writing school and learn to make things better! Are there any sites/books that might offer practice for things like this? I am new to this site so I wasn’t sure what all you have available. Can’t wait to explore! Thanks again for your awesome post and valuable tips!

    Posted by Beth Fairweather | September 30, 2017, 8:23 am
    • Don’t feel bad, we all make boo-boos 🙂 I’ve written so truly horrible pages on the way to well-written ones.

      I run a site called Fiction University. It has over 2000 articles and tips on writing (most written by me, but I have plenty of guest authors as well to show different styles and approaches). I also have a resource page with other great writing sites to try. And of course, I have five books on writing that dig into the craft. This post is actually culled from my newest book, Understanding Conflict. There’s bound to be something in all that that will work for you 🙂

      Posted by janice | September 30, 2017, 8:31 am


  1. […] Janice Hardy offers 7 tips for writing a series and 8 tips for creating characters on her own blog, then she makes a guest appearance at Romance University to teach us 5 Ways to Describe Emotions Without Making Your Characters Feel Too Self-Aware. […]

  2. […] Five Ways to Describe Emotions Without Making Your Character Feel Too Self Aware Janice Hardy at Romance University blog about how to make your characters emotions more vivid. […]

  3. […] Post you’ll like: Five Ways to Describe Emotions Without Making Your Character Feel Too Self Aware […]

  4. […] Telling sneaks into our writing when we’re explaining and not seeing the story through the eyes of our characters. We know how they feel, so we tell our readers. Instead, try climbing inside that POV character and look through her eyes. If she’s angry, pay attention to why, notice how she feels and what’s she’s doing instead of saying “she was angry” or “she walked up to him in anger.” (Take a peek at my RU post on describing emotions for more tips on this) […]

  5. […] Here’s the Full Link:… […]

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