character emotion

How to Make Readers Feel Your Characters’ Emotions

how to make readers feel character emotionI’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that your story forces your character to experience some pretty deep emotions. They might fall in love, or undergo the agony of a family member’s death, or even be wracked by guilt.

Whatever the case, how do you go about portraying those emotions so powerfully that readers feel them too? Easy—by showing them through characters’ actions.

We find a beautiful example of this in East of the Mountains by David Guterson.

While spending the night hunting with his two Brittany Spaniels, the protagonist runs afoul of a pack of Irish wolfhounds pursuing a coyote. The wolfhounds and the Brittanies tangle, leaving one of the protagonist’s beloved dogs terribly wounded and the other missing.

Guterson could easily have slipped into maudlin sentimentality in explaining the protagonist’s outrage and grief. But doing so would probably have served to distance readers rather than draw them in.

Instead, Guterson never so much as mentions the protagonist’s anguish. In sparse, delicate language, he shows the protagonist searching for his missing dog and eventually discovering it with a broken neck. We see him carry the dog across the sageland, dig its grave, and gently lay it in its final resting place. Not for one instant do we doubt this man’s love for his dog or his sorrow at its wanton and cruel death.

Because the author already spent half the book establishing the protagonist’s character and his fondness for his dogs, we know without being told that the character will grieve the animal’s passing. The unadorned portrait of his grief’s manifestation only drives the point that much deeper.

This is an exemplary model of how you can show a scene so powerfully your readers understand the emotional impact without any extra explanation.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What emotion from your characters have you recently shown readers? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Excellent post!! I’m in the revision stage now, and am working on showing vs. telling … this post came at just the right time! Thank you 🙂

  2. Drama meets pen. =) I used to be a somewhat sort-of actress, and the practice of climbing into someone else’s head has come VERY handy in writing. I think to truly portray what someone might feel and how they would act, the author need to BE that person for a time.

  3. I’m having lots of problems with this in my WiP. Cause the main character who’s undergoing trials is physically unwell, so her “actions” in response to things often falls into “faint/cry” catagory.
    Do you have suggestions on how this could play out for characters with physical disabilities or weaknesses?

  4. Go for the subtle. This encourages and enables the reader to contribute their own emotional views to the story.

    The “show” enables them to immerse themselves which gives a powerful emotional experience.

  5. @Marisa: Showing vs. telling can be one of the most difficult fiction concepts to understand, so I’m glad to have shed some light on the subject for you!

    @Cheesy: I’ve never acted myself, but I’ve often felt that acting and writing really aren’t all that far removed from one another. Both writers and actors have to become the characters. The only difference is in their mode of performance.

    @Galadriel: Have you studied any other stories that featured handicapped protagonists? How do they handle the problem?

    @Bruce: Subtle fiction is powerful fiction. If we can create a powerful story and deliver it via subtle writing, we can’t help but have a winner on our hands.

  6. When done by good writers, yes. When done by me, not so much. It doesn’t help that my protagonist is numb just as we start to get to know her — too many bad changes too fast, and she doesn’t have the option of breaking down. We see the effects later on as she has time to process things and how it affects her dealings with others, but that early numbness is hard to distinguish emotionless.

  7. I agree: numbness can be difficult to portray, especially in early chapters where we need readers to immediately connect with the character. Secondary characters – particularly those who can reflect the protagonist’s interesting or sympathetic traits – come in handy in these instances.

  8. James Scott Bell said his acting experience helped him as a writer as well.

    I need to re-read East of the Mountains sometime.

  9. You can tell I really enjoyed East of the Mountains! This will be my last video post on it.

  10. I think you might like The Kite Runner too.

  11. CricketB…that’s exactly it!

  12. Great stuff here. I had an emotional scene where I was trying to describe my characters emotions by her thoughts, and it wasn’t working; my CP mentioned she felt distant. It helped a lot to do as this post said–show action rather than Tell about the emotion. Sometimes Less is a lot More.

    Not sure how that would play out for a very demonstrative or emotional person…it would look a little different. It sorta makes a diff what your character is like.

  13. I’m a big fan of less is more. Sometimes the lack of open emotion showcases the character’s inner strength and how else can you portray that? Thanks for this helpful reminder.

  14. @Carol: The differences in characters – and, as a result, the different techniques demanded in portraying them – is one of the best challenges of writing, IMO.

    @Betty: Totally agree. Some of my favorite characters are those who emote very little, but who strongly portray their character through their actions.

  15. Going to post this on Twitter and Facebook 🙂

  16. Thanks! Much appreciated.

  17. Thank you for visiting my blog recently and for your heartfelt comments.

    This is a great post, and yes, I always find it more powerful to be shown than to be told. Emotions have actions. they just do. And when we show our characters with these actions we are showing so much more about the emotion because we are showing how the character expresses their feelings or what they do with their emotions rather than simply saying ‘he was sad.’

  18. Another thing about showing emotion through action is that we often have to dig way down deep to find a unique and descriptive action that will reveal all kinds of interesting things about our characters.

  19. Secondary characters. Yes! Four candidates in very different jobs, all dealing with the same tragedies and trying to stay professional. If I add how she shows concern for them (which she doesn’t realize reflects her concern for herself)…Thanks!

  20. Sounds great – a good opportunity to characterize both the MC and the minors.

  21. Superb point. And to answer your question, while reading I certainly prefer the author to show subtley rather than tell directly.

  22. That makes two of us. Subtle fiction is powerful fiction, and I’d much rather the author whispers to me than shouts.

  23. I agree with everyone’s comments above; especially less is more. The most powerful emotions are evoked, as stated above, when the story and characters prepare the reader for that crucial moment. Nothing more need be said. Orson Welles captured this beautifully. After someone told him how powerful his acting was in THE THIRD MAN, he replied that he did nothing. Everyone had talked about him for two thirds of the film. When he finally showed up, all tht expectation was felt as he stood peering out of the shadows. If you haven’t seen it recently, watch the movie. You’ll see what I mean!

    I saw a blog last year that mentions five ways to handle emotions. I’ve found these helpful, as different scenes call for different ways of handling feelings, and use of the same technique in every scene can feel tiresome. Wish I could give credit for the following, but I don’t remember where I saw it:

    1) A Sensual Reaction Inside the Body.

    2) A Sensual Reaction Outside the Body – Your character will express emotion through his or her body language. Your character will start by feeling the emotions (and sensual reactions) inside the body first, and then translate that emotion into the physical. The body will react. Think about your character’s posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, etc.

    3) Emotional Flashes of the Past – When humans experience emotion we reference moments from our past in our minds. Small flashes of memory show up in our consciousness. These moments don’t come as ideas but as vivid images. These images could include memories of similar emotions, people, environments, etc. Think about what your character’s triggers are from his/her past, and how they may surface in the present.

    4) Emotional Flashes of the Future – Similar to flashes from the past, a character can also flash forward to the future during an emotional moment. These flashes show what the character desires or fears, as these flashes have not yet come into existence.

    5) Sensual Selectivity – Consider your character’s surroundings at the moment of emotion. At any given time your character will be surrounded with hundreds of sensual cues. But the mind cannot process everything at once, the character will select certain elements in his/her environment with which to focus upon. Often one is not conscious of this selection, instead one’s emotions hone in on something deeper, that the character is not aware of. The emotion (in a way) makes the selection. Use your landscape to help reveal character.

    Thanks for a great post!

    Writing as AR Silverberry

  24. Great list! As a matter of fact, I re-watched The Third Man only a couple of months ago. What you say about Orson Welles performance is very true. Had he overacted the part at that point, after all that build-up, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. Subtlety once again carried the day.


  1. […] not only what a character explicitly thinks or says that forms our idea of them. It’s also elements of action, from details as small as body language to larger […]

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