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Character emotions: two ways to write about the body

When we experience different emotions, our bodies have physiological reactions. When we’re afraid our heart rate increases, when we’re angry our blood pressure rises, when we’re in love our body releases certain chemicals. As a writer, it might seem natural to describe our characters’ emotions by writing about how their body feels.

The problem is that these descriptions can quickly become overused and clichéd. Beginning writers, especially, make these mistakes, but I’ve also seen far too much published work that reaches for the quick cliché.

Unfortunately, I’m no exception. I wrote poetry for years before I began writing stories. A natural at imagery and metaphor, I had no idea how to do so many other things—like write about the body. I’ll share some of my early examples as long as you don’t “roll your eyes:”

  • My eyes drifted (hmm, did they actually float off somewhere?)
  • I rolled my eyes (In the dirt? In flour?)
  • My vision blurred (quick—get that girl some glasses)
  • Standing there like a lame horse waiting to be put out of its misery (oh, dear God—did I really write that?)

Ok, yes, go ahead and laugh. But this is how we learn. Suffice it to say, I no longer write about the “glorious parts of the body,” as one of my mentors calls them.

So, how do you describe physiological reactions? And how can they be used to show character emotion?

1.     Use original description and/or metaphor. In Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison describes how her young protagonist, Bone, feels when she is afraid of her Daddy Glenn. Bone thinks: “He didn’t even look in my direction, but my belly crawled up tight against my backbone. I felt as if the grass had turned to ammonia and was burning in my throat…”

Instead of stating that Bone’s stomach hurt and her throat burned, Allison gives us unique, specific details that convey the girl’s feelings.

2.     Look to the environment.  In another scene in the same novel, Allison uses the protagonist’s immediate environment to show us how she feels. When Bone gets mad at people for calling her “trash,” she stood “in the garden and spun myself around and around, pouring out heat and rage and the sweet stink of broken flowers.” Instead of writing that Bone was mad or using a clichéd description of the body, the author brings forward strong imagery from Bone’s own world to make us feel her rage. We understand clearly that Bone is the broken flower.

A good way to learn how to write character emotions is to study the masters. As you read, notice how the author conveys emotions and whether or not the writer uses descriptions of the body.

In my next post, I’ll suggest a few novels to study.

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