Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Character's Actions Show His Emotions

"A Character's Actions Show His Emotions" by Joan Y. Edwards

Action Shows EmotionPublic Domain by Tjoepoe
Action Shows Emotion
Public Domain by

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 that show 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. Please share one of your “Plain Jane” sentences and its revised ”Dazzling Dan” version in the comment area. I'd love to read them. 

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


  1. Joan,
    We all have been taught that "actions speak louder than words." Guess that's true in the world a writer creates too.

  2. LOVE the "play charades" with your characters to get them to show, not tell. Brilliant! Writers try to get that right, but it isn't easy. This makes it a lot easier to visualize. Great post!

  3. Dear Linda,
    Thanks for writing. "Actions speak louder than words" is a great saying for writers to ponder. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. Remembering that saying helps us put our writing in prospective.

    Celebrate you!
    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards

  4. Dear Suzanne,
    Thanks for writing. I'm glad you loved the "play charades" with your characters to get them to show,not tell. I appreciate your compliment that it made it easier to visualize. You're right, it isn't easy, but writers are up to the challenge.

    Celebrate You
    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards

  5. Excellent advice, Joan. I love the idea that emotion is disturbance.

  6. Dear Nancy,
    Thanks for writing. I appreciate your saying this blog post is excellent advice. What a nice compliment! Richard Lazarus' opinion that emotion is a disturbance surprised me, too. A new emotion is definitely caused by a disturbance of the normal. It reflects a change from the usual. Similar to how a plot in a story is supposed to begin...when there is a big change. Cool how everything blends in together and when you have an "Aha" moment like that, isn't it?

    Celebrate you
    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards