>Describing Emotions


Emotions. We all have them, and our characters all have them (well apart from the scaled Zeomoth from Betelgeuse 7, but since the collapse of their stellar empire due to lack of interest, thank goodness we don’t have to worry about them). Describing them in a character can be a challenge. I find describing my own emotions a challenge and there are no layers of prose between Me and Me.

There are plenty of words for emotion, but when its all said and done they all seem to boil down to four or five basic states. I can’t help but thinking its a bit like how the Eskimos have so many words for snow. Are we now limited by our own language in expressing reality? Are we now dealing with the legacy of the stoic British with their endemic Stiff Upper Lip? Perhaps like people in equatorial New Guinea had no need for snow description, were our mostly bloody-minded and warlike [linguistic] ancestors not in need of emotional description? Was there a little known tribe of expressive Keltoi wiped out by Caesar’s advance into Gaul that had twenty basic words for emotion? Or are we losing them even now as languages go extinct?

You have some basic states:

Angry, Sad, Happy, Fearful

Which come with flavors i.e. Happy => Delight, Ecstasy, Excitement etc

Then others that seem to be a combination of various elements of this basic emotional spectrum:

Apathy, Loneliness, Hate, Confusion, Bewilderment, Shame, Annoyance, Grief, Depression, Apprehension, Disappointment, Irritation, Horror, Jealousy – the list goes on.

I’m not trying to start an exercise in semantics, and I realize some Psychologists probably spend there lives studying this exact thing, just trying to express my frustration at grappling with it. Despite the bewildering array of words that you might get from a thesaurus, I often end up dissatisfied, falling back on a combination of the two. i.e.

“Yolinda looked at Finn, both pleased by the off-hand compliment and yet annoyed at the reference to her betrayal of him on Fraser Island. “

In this line above, isn’t Yolinda actually feeling just one thing? A weird admixture of the two emotions? If so what the hell is the name for it!

Is this just me or do we need new words in the English language? Does it take us as writers to push the boundaries and invent new words and expressions, much as the Elizabethan Poets did way back when the language was in its infancy?

Yours Bemused/Hopeful/Anxious/Determined/Pained

Chris Mc


  1. >I agree, Chris.If your heart drops, maybe it doesn't really. But that's what it feels like. If you tried to find another way to describe the sensation, you could leave your reader wondering what you are describing.If you use the phrase, you could be accused of using cliches.Sometimes its easier to use a short-hand phrase that everyone knows in the hope that it is invisible.

  2. >Describing physical symptoms of strong emotions can work, but gets a bit tedious.Sweating, sick to the stomach, hands shaking, gasping for breath can get cliched too. But it still beats "He was terrified."Unless you're writing a thriller, it had probably best be used sparingly, and with attention to POV.

  3. >"I can't ell you what it is, but you'll recognise it when you feel it."Writing emotion is a lot more complex than just words IMO. – it's carried by speech patterns, cues in speech tags, even setting descriptions (can be like the creepy music in a movie). To sound like the idiot I am, that's why I 'play' out the parts when writing – to get those speech patterns right. A scared person speaks differently. Someone cleverer than me can explain but you can hear when the speaker is almost whimpering with fear, or is barely in control of an incandescent rage.

  4. >Dave, LOL. I am sooooo glad I'm not the only one who acts out the parts when writing. I can't even begin to tell you some of the strange looks I've gotten when working at the library or elsewhere. Seriously, it's no wonder little children sometimes run screaming when they see me [G].As for the best ways to get our characters' emotion across — well, if you figure it out, let me know. I try, and hopefully succeed at least some of the time, to show what a character is feeling not only by what they say but also what they do — internally and externally — as well as through setting the scene. I don't always, probably not even very often, accomplish it because it is a very delicate balancing act. Along that line, do we need new words to help describe emotion? No, in my opinion. In my case at least, I need to hone my ability to convincingly portray the emotion through the words we already have, and to do so without over-relying on dialog tags.

  5. >To sound like the idiot I am, that's why I 'play' out the parts when writing – to get those speech patterns right.I've gotten lazy running things in my head. That's such genius, such a stupid, brilliant idea. I'm going to have to get fit for the action scenes! Absolutely inspired, Dave.

  6. >Hi, Rowena. I see what you mean. There is an incredible economy in using some of those phrases. Like you said, you have to hope that they are invisible to the reader. And I guess you have to hope that reader is not cliche-crusading potential editor!

  7. >Hi, matapam. That's certainly good writing.Your comment also got me thinking about matching up the physical symptoms with the various emotions. I'd never really thought of doing that before, but it could be a really powerful technique.

  8. >Good point, Dave. I am usually so instictive with dialogue that I rarely think about it this way. I guess I tend to shorten character dialogue in action or when they are tense. Hmmm… more food for thought!

  9. >I tend not to use the emotional description words much myself – but then, I tend to channel the emotions my POV character is feeling at the time anyway, so it… kind of shows. Weirdly, I also tend to channel the physical sensations that go with the emotions so I'll describe those. Non POV characters, I'll use non-cliche physical signs, such as the character in Impaler who has a habit of twisting his mustache with his left hand when he's nervous.Chris – being possessed by your own Demon Lords can be really helpful sometimes. Unfortunately you usually end up wanting to scrub yourself inside and out.

  10. >Anton, If I wrote in a library… Not with every bit obviously, but I often end up speaking BOTH parts (and you know what falsetto does to speech to text programmes?) and acting out bits to get them right – once again often playing more than one part. Yes, I'm an idiot :-).Other people they can do this in their heads. I'm like the kid watching the movie (in my head) and doing the voices and actions – and then trying to write them down!

  11. >Thanks, Kate. I have the souls of my Demon Lords in a jewelled case on the book shelf. I'll take it down later and give it a go.Hi, Dave. You certainly have an interesting writing process. Must be interesting for Barbs 🙂

  12. >Couple of off-hand thoughts. First, doesn't the adage about "show, don't tell" argue against using simple labels? So perhaps we don't need more words, but better depictions? After all, having a word "angry" doesn't mean that we can simply tell the reader "George was angry" — no, we need to provide setting, goals, and whatnot, and have George trying to break his fist against the walls. Second, related, is that labels are somewhat ambiguous. "Anger" — what is that? Is it the little anger that the toothpaste ran out when you were trying to brush your teeth, or the all-consuming blaze of anger that will drive you to self-immolation as long as your hated enemy is destroyed at the same time? Having a wider palate of words — labels — doesn't seem to remove the need to depict the emotions in some detail?

  13. >Hi, Mike. I guess I was more thinking along the lines of being inside one charactes PoV. Certainly you would want to describe what a character is doing to show their emotions if they are not the PoV character.I like to go for a mix. I will show the emotion in a characters actions or in physical symptoms, but will also sometimes describe the emotions themselves as well.For example, an in-depth introspective where a character may be exploring their feelings – you can't do this with described symptoms.And you can't actually Show everything. Sheer economy will dictate some shortcuts.

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