How do writers describe emotions?

Karalee’s Post #103

I volunteer twice a week at a school to help refugee children learn English and Math. It is tremendously rewarding for me, definitely one of those win-win experiences.

Today when I left the classroom I felt a surge of happiness at the progress that these children are making. I turned the corner into a hallway leading towards the front doors and a student I knew from last term was right there laughing and interacting with her friends. She was holding a box of chocolates and she waved me over and offered me one, all the while speaking English and exuding happiness. Her shyness and insecurity seemed a memory of the past.

It truly is tremendous what a positive learning environment and the drive to learn can achieve!

I left the school almost skipping in my happy-mind state. Then, like Helga in her last post –  A picture worth a thousand plots. Or turning ideas into stories – I stopped short as a writer’s moment hit me. They come to me quite frequently, and this time it was in the form of a question.

How would I describe an emotion?

Wikipedia lists dozens of emotions. Psychologist Paul Ekman, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, states that there are six basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise. These emotions are expressed by certain facial expressions that are universal in all cultures.

The lists tell me what the emotions are, and facial expressions and other body postures are great contributors to helping describe the emotion. But that’s not all that writers need to do in describing an emotion.

Writers also need to express how the character is feeling while experiencing the emotion. How do I describe what fear feels like? Or happiness? Or more complex emotions like Shame? Pride? Guilt?

Almost two years ago I wrote the post How does a writer describe taste and smell? This post continues to generate interest with readers, and I believe it’s because describing taste and smell is difficult to do. I went back and reread my post and it struck me that some of the concepts I referred to also can be used in describing what a character is feeling within an emotion.

  1. An emotion can be described through a situation that evokes that emotion. For instance, a character can be in a closet waiting for the monster to break the door down and feeling like he’s jumped from an airplane and his parachute didn’t open and he’s waiting to hit the ground.
  2. Emotions can also be linked to memory and can be used in characterizations. An example could be happiness associated with celebrating a birthday, or being given special attention by a parent, etc. Later in life the same emotional feeling can be linked to a similar experience. Phobias are another expression of feelings associated with emotions. If you have a fear of driving it could be because you were in a car years before and a child jumped in front of your car and you couldn’t stop in time.
  3. Verbs are inherently used in describing what characters do when they feel certain emotions. When angry a character can hit, punch, kick, etc. When happy she can laugh, hug, dance, etc.

But, what if your readers have never felt the emotion that you are trying to describe? Could you, the writer, describe it in a way the reader could really experience and understand it? I would think not.

Like I wrote for describing taste and smell, much of what we write regarding emotions also relies on the reader experiencing something similar to it before. The reader needs to relate with his own emotions matching (or similar to) what the character is feeling in the story.

This is the ultimate connection of the reader to your character, don’t you think?

emotional thesaurusAnother great book to refer to in describing emotions is The Emotional Thesaurus. If you want to watch a video, here’s  YouTube link you may want to click on for more information on the subject of emotions.







Writing Progress: Great suggestions from fellow writers on LinkedIn group Books and Writers on how to work around my self-editor and make progress. I will put these to the test this week!

Writing Distractions: I’m moving my office to another room in the house and am in the midst of reorganizing and finding loads of writing stuff I haven’t seen in months. It’s like Christmas and summer holidays rolled up in one!

Treats eaten: pieces of homemade pumpkin pie x 2 (small and delicious!)

Movies watched: Birdman. Didn’t think it was all that great. I wasn’t drawn in emotionally that’s for sure!

Perspective Photos taken this week:



Happy writing!

3 thoughts on “How do writers describe emotions?

  1. Good suggestions on writing about emotions. I’ve used The Emotional Thesaurus and it’s an excellent reference. So glad you’re getting so much out of your volunteer teaching — it sounds really rewarding!

  2. Reblogged this on 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months and commented:

    I published my post this week without a title and WordPress gave it the number 6982. The name has been corrected to How do writers describe emotions? I’m re blogging with the proper name. Thanks!

  3. Interesting question: ‘What if your readers have never felt the emotion you are trying to describe?’ I believe that’s where fiction writers can do more than entertain. Personally, I have learned much about life and about myself through emotions I felt when reading an excellent novel. Great post!

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