Get Your Feelings Out of Your Head

So your character is feeling frustrated.

Or maybe she’s mad.

Possibly sad?

Now you know already that writing “Leah was mad, her ears burned and it felt like steam was billowing out of her ears.” Is a no go.

In case you didn’t know why it’s a nisht. Identifying the emotion like that is straight up telling (remember, show don’t tell). And then ears burning and steaming is a cliche city special.

But your character’s feeling...something. Besides for the thoughts going through her head, she’s feeling something inside her body, and it’s often reflected on the outside as well.

So how do you write, tap into what your character is doing, without falling into the been-there read-that trap?

What I do, and I found out that Charles Dickens did the same, is I act it out myself. Charles Dickens used to do it in front of a mirror, making grotesque faces and then quickly jotting down the muscles pulled and overall impression. I guess I’m not that dedicated, I just sit at my computer and close my eyes, and plop myself into the scene through the POV of whatever character I need a reaction/description for.

And then I pay close attention.

What is my face doing, did my eyes flicker? What does my body feel like, is my breath heavy? Is there tension in my muscles? Are my legs tapping?

I listen to my own reactions and then write them down. If I want to be fancy I’ll go back later and turn some of that into a metaphor or add in some pretty verbiage, but first I just accurately capture the experience as I feel it.

(as a side, I was recently really tight and stressed about a deadline, and the character in my story was feeling pretty anxious herself, I didn’t need an imagination, I just wrote exactly what I felt like, later I got notes from my editor, she highlighted that description and wrote “Wow, you can really feel that.” See - copying off yourself works)

Now, there are a lot of questions about this method. Like how can I assume that what I feel is what the character would feel and even larger, what if I don’t feel anything.

First, if you don’t feel anything then I wonder how connected you are to your character, how well do you understand them? Writing fiction is an act of acknowledgement, of seeing another person fully and accepting them. If you can’t accept anyone, but yourself, then only write about types like yourself (and then your question is moot.)

Another thing about assuming what other people feel.

Yes, you should do your character development work. But also realize in many ways we’re not half as unique as we’d like to think we are. Study psychology, there are defined ways in which people will respond to situations, take for example the fight/flight/freeze response, that’s only three ways that people respond to danger, figure out which one your character is most likely to use and what that response looks like in the scene you’re writing.

So someone insults Leah, will she insult back (fight), run out of the room (flight), go silent (freeze).

Another thing to consider in the uniqueness point is that if you’ve felt it, someone else has felt it too. We are not that alone and unique in our experiences, so if you can tap into an emotion you felt, it’s likely that it’s appropriate for your character as well.

And if you’re just feeling overwhelmed, and want me to just tell you what to write when your character is mad, check out the The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman.

It’s a brilliant book that compiles all emotions, related emotions, different ways people respond to them etc.

You can buy through the affiliate link below.

Happy Writing.

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