Character Emotion

Developed by Gloria Willcox

We are taught early on to hide our emotions. If a sibling or friend says something mean to us, our caretaker says to ignore it. Boys are taught not to cry and girls are told they’re overreacting. Adults learn to show only socially acceptable, surface emotions.

When creating character emotions, writers should dig below surface feelings. When I first came across this Feeling Wheel, I was so joyful (excited/fascinated) by the possibilities. Knowing the deeper, raw emotions can  create more complex character emotions and influences dialogue, as well. Emotions have a direct impact on how characters communicate, the words they use to convey or hide their true feelings, and the sound or tone of those words.

Here’s a scenario: Lexi and Tyler are preparing to go parasailing, something Tyler’s never attempted. Surface feelings: Lexi feels powerful. Tyler feels scared.

How would raw feelings affect dialogue for Lexi? If her powerful emotion stems from feeling important/discerning, she’s liable to speak like a leader using statements rather than questions. If they stem from feeling appreciated/valuable, she’ll probably ask questions and try to boost Tyler’s confidence.

How would raw feelings affect dialogue for Tyler? If his scared emotion stems for being anxious/overwhelmed, he’s liable to speak in clipped sentences. If they stem from insecure/embarrassed, he’ll probably turn into a comedian to cover his discomfort (note: this is my character’s specific reaction to this emotion. Your characters might respond differently).

How do your characters respond differently to deeper, raw emotions? What kinds of things do they do to cover them up?

10 comments on “Character Emotion

  1. lbdiamond says:

    Wow, that’s a lot of emotion!

    I tend to explain my characters’ emotion in physical sensations–sometimes it’s tough cuz I don’t want it to sound cliche.

  2. You are absolutely right! It’s tough to avoid cliches like nail biting for nerousness and stomping for anger.

    I read a short story once where the main character said out dated things like “none of your beeswax” when she got nervous or upset. It made for great humor, especially in front of the guy she liked.

  3. Jessie says:

    very useful – thanks for sharing it. I might even print a larger version and add it to my writing wall.

  4. kellyhashway says:

    In my current WIP, my main character is completely driven by emotion and she shows it. You’re both right about it being difficult to avoid cliches when doing this. I tried to give my MC a few character traits, things she does when she’s feeling certain ways, and stick to those.

  5. I think this is a great wheel! I am going to print it out when I get home and post it on my wall. 🙂
    I try to act out some scenes when I am writing to see what I do when I get nervous. Or I go and read up on gestures to help me out.
    But when my characters get emotional I think there are a lot of smaller gestures they make that when paid attention to get the scene going really well.

    Liz ^_^

  6. Beverly says:

    This is so interesting. I’m saving the wheel to help me avoid those old eye-rolling and stomping foot scenes. Thanks.

  7. PK Hrezo says:

    Interesting post. I really liked what you had to say, tho the emotion wheel seems obvious to me, I know others have a harder time understanding emotions and where they come from. 🙂

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