Oddly enough, emotion is something a lot of pantsers have trouble writing, and I’m no exception. I think it’s because many of us feel the emotions of our characters as we write them, with the result that we see more on the page than is actually there.
It’s rather an odd thing: first we have to feel the emotion ourselves. Then we’ve got to depict it well in print. After that, if we did it right, someone we’ve never met reads our book, and feels the same emotion we started with.
The key to the transition is words, and powerful words. For instance, if you use the word ‘yawn’ a few times in a scene, you can guarantee that a high proportion of your readers will start yawning. That’s one of the best known trigger words. ‘Itch’ is another one. Describe the crawling skin and maddening, prickling itch of an allergy rash, and your readers will be trying not to scratch – and often they’ll be feeling itchy in the same body part where your character is itchy.
This, fellow pantsers, is applied, even forced, empathy. Our goal is to make other people feel the way we do, using only words.
People-watching is good for this, as is taking note of how people you know respond to emotions. There’s always going to be a layer of social conditioning on top of the human-universals: if it’s not done for men to cry in public – or at all – then your male character suffering terrible grief is going to try to divert it into a socially acceptable channel. If women are expected to make with the waterworks at any moment, then your female character probably will. And so forth.
There are a whole lot of physical cues you can use to depict emotion. Someone shuffling along with slumped shoulders and head bowed is certainly tired – maybe even weary. Add quick gestures to wipe their eyes, and you have someone who is utterly miserable and wants to be anywhere else.
Nervousness and fear will show in things like more sweat (which smells different than normal exertion-sweat – it’s stronger and sharper), dry mouth, agitation as adrenaline starts flooding their system. They might wipe their hands on their clothes, because their palms are sweaty, and they could press their hands flat on something so they don’t clench into or onto the nearest object. It’s an instinct thing: scared people grab something to hang onto and hold so tight their knuckles show under the skin. Often they’ll go pale: that’s the fight/flight reaction redirecting blood flow towards the muscular system to better enable explosive action.
Happiness shows in walking straighter, with a bit of a bounce to the step, shoulders back a bit, and open and relaxed kind of posture. You don’t even need smiles – those are usually to signal to someone else that you’re happy.
These are all external cues, things someone else will notice. There are plenty of internal cues as well, things you can use without stating the emotion involved.
Your character’s chest aches, his stomach clenches, and his heartbeat increases: he’s probably scared. His eyes burn and his throat closes on him: grief. His muscles are tight, his heartbeat increases, his teeth clench and he wants to clench his fists: anger. Everything feels light, heartbeat is slow: happiness. His face gets hot, he wants to dig a hole and pull it in after him: embarrassment.
I’ve personally found that emotion cues best when I don’t actually mention the emotion in question, just describe its effects on the character who’s feeling it, and in many cases their attempts to deny that this is what they’re feeling (usually because in the spirit of ‘things get worse’ they’re in a situation where giving the emotion in question free rein would get them killed).
Here’s an exercise for those who have difficulty getting emotion across: write a short scene (no more than a page) from the point of view of someone feeling an intense emotion they can’t allow anyone else to see. Now give that scene to a friend to read. Afterwards, ask them what they thought your character was feeling. If you’ve done it right, your reader will have the right answer. If not, ask what your reader would have expected someone feeling that to do or feel – and try the piece on a few other people because there’s always the chance you’ve been getting feedback from someone weirder than I am who totally mis-cues emotion. (If you have the misfortune to totally mis-cue emotion, find people who will tell you what the emotional cues should be for the emotion you want readers to feel, and build up a reference list of them. Aside from anything else, it will let you pretend to be like everyone else and possibly save you a lot of trouble).
As always, read books where it’s done well and take mental or actual notes on how the author does it. Sarah is excellent with this, as is Terry Pratchett particularly in his later books (Snuff has several magnificent examples). If you’re looking for strong emotions that are kept beneath a socially acceptable façade, you can’t do much better than Georgette Heyer (A Civil Contract has possibly the best example of a woman desperately in love with someone – and never once lets him see this because she knows it would repel him).
I don’t necessarily recommend pumping your friends for information about how it feels when their spouse dies or some other tragedy occurs – although if they know you’re a writer, they might well know to expect this – but do observe how they react. We’re writers: we’re going to observe and take mental notes anyway. The whole time I was driving (1500 miles, two and a half days) with a broken ankle, I was mentally taking note of the way the way my foot swelled up, the nature of the pain – the burning under my skin that made me whimper, the flashes of white and the nausea if I didn’t have the foot absolutely straight when I was hobbling around, how it never ever stopped hurting, just fluctuated between bearable and uncontrollable whimpering… all of that – and how I responded to the whole ordeal.
The more emotion you can show through character action and physical cues, the more chance your readers will feel it too. And that should always be the goal.