Make Your Character’s Actions Show Emotions

“Make Your Character’s Actions Show Emotions” by Joan Y. Edwards

When you were in grade school, your teachers probably told you to tell the emotions of the character. You probably wrote simple emotion words. She was mad, frightened, happy, excited, etc. This pleased your teachers. Now, as a professional writer, that’s no longer an acceptable option in the final version to submit to a publisher. What do you do now?

In Wikipedia Richard Lazarus’ theory states that emotion is a disturbance that happens like this:

  1. What’s Happening? What does it mean to you? This cues the mind to choose an emotion.
  2. Your Body Changes according to the emotion chosen to suit the situation: increased heart rate, and adrenalin to handle the situation – fight or flight.
  3. Action – The person feels the emotion and chooses how to react.

Sometimes our mind makes mistakes with its reasoning. Motivational speakers tell stories about people who worry themselves to death. They also tell how if you’re afraid of something, your fear will attract it to you. On Snopes I found the legend Bob Proctor told about a man who got locked inside a refrigerated train car. He thought he was freezing. He wrote a note telling his family and friends  how he was freezing and  his fingers and toes were numb. What he didn’t realize was that yes, he was in a refrigerated car, but it wasn’t activated. It was 65 degrees in there. Be careful what you believe. Anchor your beliefs in truth.

Even though you and the man down the street have the same experiences, it doesn’t compute in your minds the same way. Your gut reaction is not the same. It’s also true about husbands and wives, best friends, and co-workers. What you believe about your experiences, determines your emotions. That is powerful. The same thing is true for each of your characters. In your story, if you put 42 people on a bus and it wrecks, not all of them will react in the same way. They are all sitting in a different seat on the bus. They would also have 42 different opinions. As a result, they could have 42 different emotions triggered by the wreck. They could act 42 different ways.

Below are five examples of what I call “Plain Jane” telling sentences, followed by five “Dazzling Dan” sentences showing the effects of the emotion – the actions.

1. Amanda was angry.
Amanda screamed. She picked up the tall trash can with the foot-long rat in it and threw it down the steps and slammed the door. No rat was going to stay in her apartment without paying rent.

2. Steven was tired.
Toothpicks propped Steven’s eyes open and his shoulders drooped to the floor, but he stayed up to watch the voting results on the midnight news.

3. Bruce was happy.
Bruce danced around the coach. He smiled and gave high-fives to his teammates.

4. Olivia was sad.
Olivia sat in a chair covered with a week-old newspaper with the obituary page over her face. She pitched a fourth empty box of tissues on the floor. She pushed the button on her stereo to play the same song she listened to all night: “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”

5. Tom was scared.
Tom closed the blinds. He checked the locks three times. He hid under his bed and prayed what he hoped was not his last prayer.

Check your manuscripts using Search and Find for the regular emotion words: joy, sorrow, fear, hate, angry, sad, joyful, afraid, fearful, hate, etc. While writing, pretend that you and your characters are playing “Charades.” You can’t say the “emotion” word. You can only act it out. Make your character’s actions show their emotions.

Thank you for reading this blog post. If you leave a comment or even better, share one of your “Plain Jane” sentences and its revised “Dazzling Dan” version before midnight April 26, 2013, I’ll put your name in a hat to win a free pitch and 1000 word critique or a free copy of my world-famous picture book, Flip Flap Floodle. I’ll use to choose the winner.

Good luck with all your writing endeavors and every phase of your life.

Accept yourself as you are. Celebrate you every day.
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards

Copyright © 2013 Joan Y. Edwards

20 thoughts on “Make Your Character’s Actions Show Emotions”

    1. Dear Linda,
      I’m glad you liked the story about the refrigerated car. It does make you think a little more about your thoughts and beliefs, doesn’t it?

      I celebrate you and your gift of communicating with me on my blog. Thank you.

      Celebrate you.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

    1. Dear Joy,
      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you think they were great reminders and examples. What a nice compliment!

      Celebrate you and your gift of communicating with others
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

  1. Great post as usual. If I may, there’s one more important word–well there’s probably many–to search and find. It’s one I find myself using too often. FELT If your character FELT this way or that, you’re telling not showing. 🙂

    1. Dear Sandra,
      Thanks for writing. Thank you for the compliment, too. Thank you very much for telling us to search and find the word FELT. I’ll keep that in mind. I’ll search for it in my manuscripts.

      Celebrate you and your gift of communicating
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

    1. Dear Carol,
      Thank you for writing. I appreciate your compliment. It’s great that you teach this way to your class. You’re helped many people build their skills and their talents at writing. I admire you.

      Celebrate you and your gift of teaching
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

  2. Thanks for these great reminders and examples. When I was teaching middle school writing I wouldn’t allow my students to use passive voice and they weren’t happy campers for a while. But their writing sure improved!

    1. Dear Linda,
      I’m so glad you stopped by and left a message. You’re very welcome for the post. What a nice compliment that you believe they were great reminders and examples. I understand your students’ dismay when they couldn’t use passive voice. We use it many times in our conversations without even thinking about it. It seems we have to push a certain button in our writer’s brain to reword the sentences to leave out the Passive Voice. It definitely makes clear writing without the passive voice.

      Celebrate you and your gift of writing.
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

  3. This is a particularly good column today, Joan.
    An exercise I did for an Institute for Children’s Literature course addressed this issue. I had to add emotion and description to a scene about a thunderstorm. The basic story was someone being stuck in a thunderstorm where there was lots of wind, thunder and lightning and rain. This is what I came up with.
    Joan, worn out from clearing a path through thick undergrowth choking the woods, slumped against the curved and twisted trunk of a beech tree. Looking out over the browning field of soybeans, she wondered if there was a single muscle in her body she hadn’t strained and ohmed her mind into quietude.
    Roiling black clouds slid across the sky from the west, playing peek-a-boo with the sun. Streaks of lightning flashed in the distance and the smell of ozone perfumed the air. Joan watched the storm approach. She knew she’d have to move soon, but the fresh, clean wind soothed her tired bones. She loved the electric excitement that a thunderstorm always brought to the air. It made her bones tingle and raised the hair at the nape of her neck.
    The clouds—bored with the peek-a-boo game—hid the sun. The wind grew stronger, whipping the soybean plants into submission and tugging Joan’s short hair. Then the first drops of rain splatted down. Groaning, Joan pushed herself to her feet and hurried back into the woods. She reached the sheltering trees just before the main wall of rain roared down from the sky.

    1. Dear Sarah,
      Thank you for not only writing but sharing your very descriptive passage about being stuck in a thunderstorm with lots of wind, thunder, lightning, and rain. Good job. It seemed like the “Joan” in your story liked the excitement of a thunderstorm.

      Celebrate you and your gift of writing
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

  4. Hi Joan, it took some time to figure out what show vs. tell meant. The way you presented it will be sure to help others. I like the comparison to Dazzling Dan and Plain Jane. My hubby, Dan, will like that too. 🙂

    1. Dear Tracy,
      It’s good to hear from you. I’m glad you think the way I presented the difference between showing and telling will help others. It’s so neat that you’re married to “Dazzling Dan.” Awesome! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me.

      Celebrate you and your Dazzling Dan!
      Never Give Up
      Joan Y. Edwards

  5. Dear Becky,
    Thank you for writing. You’re welcome. What a nice compliment to say I share great information! You share great information, too.

    Celebrate you and your love of people
    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards

  6. “…and the Winner is Joy Moore,” by Joan Y. Edwards

    Thank you for reading Make Your Character’s Actions Show Emotions blog from March 19, 2013. The following people left a comment and/or shared a “Plain Jane” sentence and its revised ”Dazzling Dan” version before midnight April 26, 2013. I put their names in a virtual hat and let choose the winner.

    Linda Andersen
    Joy Moore
    Sandra Warren
    Carol Federlin Baldwin
    Linda Phillips 4866
    Sarah Maury Swan
    Tracy Campbell
    Becky Shillington chose number 2 – Joy Moore. Congratulations, Joy. Please email me and let me know whether you want a free pitch and 1000 word critique or a free copy of Flip Flap Floodle. Hear Flip’s Song.

    Thank you to everyone who reads my blog. A special thanks to those who take time from their busy lives to leave me a note. I appreciate you very much.

    Celebrate you.
    Never Give Up

    Joan Y. Edwards

  7. Howdy! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog.
    Is it very hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very technical but I can figure things out pretty fast. I’m thinking about making
    my own but I’m not sure where to start. Do you have any points or suggestions? Appreciate it!

    1. Dear Ashley,
      Thanks for writing. I hope you’ll come back soon.
      It is not very hard to begin a blog. You don’t have to be extremely technical to begin a blog. You can go to either or
      WordPress gives you ways to check your work before making it go live.
      Blogger lets you put ads on your blog to help you make money.

      For the name of your blog, I suggest using your name. You can title the blog what you like. If people search for you, they’ll find your blog.
      Good luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *