November 4, 2011

How Your Characters Might Recognize an Emotion Part II

Emotion, as much as any other part of a story, must be shown, not told. How much more effective is it to say

He clenched is fists until his fingernails dug painfully into his palms

rather than

He was so angry, he saw red.

I’ve collected a list of actions characters display and participate in to communicate their emotions. Some are culled from other author’s writings–how they effectively communicated the emotion (effective for me, anyway) and others from books on body language. You’ll find some are in the main character’s POV; some from that of one who is watching. They help me make sure my character’s body language is in sync with what they’re feeling.

Emotions A-F are in a prior post. Emotions G-Z are here:


  • eyes sparkle, with the skin a little wrinkled round and under them, and with the mouth a little drawn back at the corners
  • bring tears into the eyes


  • shrug shoulders
  • elbows turn inwards
  • extend hands outwards and open palms


  • mouth firmly closed, lowering brow, slight frown

Sadness Seen in…

  • bowing postures of the body wall
  • in the cry face and lip-pout
  • in gazing-down
  • in a slumped (i.e., flexed-forward) posture of the shoulders
  • in the audible sigh.
  • drooping eyelids
  • flaccid muscles
  • hanging head
  • contracted chest
  • lowered lips, cheeks, and jaw (“all sink downwards from their own weight”)
  • raised inner-ends of the eyebrows and remaining motionless and passive Anatomy
  • In acute sadness, muscles of the throat constrict, repeated swallowing occurs, the eyes close
  • Facial signs include frowning eyebrows mouth pouted or compressed



Photo credit: Addiction Treatment Strategies

  • a blush especially low down the body does the blush extend


  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Angry outbursts.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Low energy level.
  • Constant worrying.
  • Propensity for mistakes.
  • Thoughts about death or suicide.
  • Trouble getting along with others.
  • Withdrawing from others.
  • Hiding from responsibilities.
  • Carelessness
  • I find it difficult to concentrate because of distracting thoughts.
  • I worry about things that don’t matter.
  • I feel jittery.
  • I get diarrhea.
  • I imagine terrifying scenes.
  • I cannot keep anxiety-provoking pictures and images out of my mind.
  • My stomach gets tense.
  • I pace up and down nervously.
  • I am bothered by unimportant thoughts running through my mind.
  • I become immobilized.
  • I feel I am losing out on things because I cannot make decisions fast enough.
  • I perspire.
  • I cannot stop thinking worrisome thoughts.
  • Become irritable when you have to wait in line or get caught in a traffic jam?
  • Eat, drink, or smoke in an attempt to relax and/or relieve tension?
  • Worry about your work or other deadlines at night and/or on weekends?
  • Wake up in the night thinking about all the things you must do the next day?
  • Feel impatient at the slowness with which many events take place?
  • Find yourself short of time to complete everything that needs to take place?
  • Become upset because things have not gone your way
  • Tend to lose your temper and get irritable?
  • Wake up in the night and have a hard time getting back to sleep?
  • Drive over the speed limit?
  • Interrupt people while they are talking or complete their sentences for them?
  • Forget about appointments and/or lose objects
  • signs of stress: My heart beats faster.
  • symptoms of stress such as tension, pain in the neck or shoulders, or headaches



Photo credit: Curbing Office Hostility

  • Frowning
  • Twitching
  • Eyelids Breathing rapid
  • Breathing irregular
  • Mouth tight
  • Swallowing

Be aware of nervous gestures: If someone brushes their hair back with their fingers, their thoughts conflict with yours. If someone is biting their lip, they are anticipating something.


  • The wider the gesture, the closer someone is to you, the warmer his opinions of you
  • Watch head position. tilted heads are trying to convince you of their honesty
  • Check their arms. The worst thing that you can do to people with crossed arms is to challenge them in one way or another. This annoys them. If someone rests their arms behind their neck, they are open to what is being discussed.
  • Lowered eyebrows and squinted eyes illustrate an attempt at understanding. It’s usually skeptical.
  • Forced smiles only involve the muscles around the mouth

Can you add to this list? How do you convey emotion in your characters?

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s seeking representation for a techno-thriller. Describing that as challenging would be like describing Yo-yo Ma as just another cellist. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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